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Tribe Backing a Casino for O.C. Plays Its Plans Close to the Vest

On the reservation in rural San Diego County, few tribal members know many details; fewer still are talking.

August 22, 2004|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

MESA GRANDE, Calif. — To find the backers of a glitzy casino resort proposed for Orange County, drive down Interstate 15 into San Diego County. Take a left on a state highway for about an hour as it narrows from six lanes to two. Right on a county road near Julian that snakes up a mountain. And finally, left onto a narrow washboard dirt road that drops about five miles into an oak-studded canyon.

To say the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation is in the middle of nowhere would be inaccurate. A far-flung suburb of nowhere is more like it.

Finding the place is hard enough. Getting anyone to talk about how the tiny tribe and Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn came to discuss the idea of bringing gambling to Garden Grove -- just down Harbor Boulevard from Disneyland -- is even more difficult.

The casino idea, raised in private talks involving city officials, Wynn and the Mesa Grande tribe, became public last week when a county supervisor raised concerns.

Though some Garden Grove City Council members also are skeptical about the proposal, city staff members have sketched an enticing vision of an elaborate Vegas-style casino and resort that would include restaurants, shopping and live entertainment -- a development that at long last would allow Garden Grove to share in the tourist boom that has been so good to neighboring Anaheim.

Wynn, in a statement, will say only that the talks were "based on hypothesis on top of hypothesis."

Members of the Mesa Grande tribe are even less forthcoming. Messages for tribal Chairwoman Charlene Siford and several other council members weren't returned.

Not much information is available at the tribal office either, which is above a fire station and staffed by a man with an eye patch who won't identify himself.

"We're not making any comment at this time," he said. "Now I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

State officials say three dozen tribes -- many of them tiny -- have expressed interest in opening casinos. On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed five gambling compacts with tribes around the state, a deal expected to bring an additional $200 million a year into a hungry state budget.

The Mesa Grande band is the latest tribe in California to look to gambling for economic salvation.

Its 628 members are spread far and wide. Only 121 live on the 1,800-acre reservation, where about half the working-age population is unemployed, according to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The 2000 Census pegged the reservation's median household income at $19,375.

"It's hard. Nothing like living in the city," said Rising Sun, 26, who lives on the reservation and earns money doing "various things."

A government truck drives down into the canyon each month to deliver surplus government cheese, bread, canned meat and vegetables. The reservation is dotted with newish government-built stucco homes with dirt frontyards. The tribal government runs on about $200,000 a year in federal money.

"They're very poor," said Jim Fletcher, superintendent of the BIA's Southern California office in Riverside. "They're trying to figure out ways to generate revenue and raise their standard of living. If you see where they live, you'd understand why it's hard for them."

Much of the reservation is too far above the frost line to grow citrus or avocados, too steep to support development, too isolated to support tourism. The tribe unsuccessfully sought a government grant in 1992 to study storing spent nuclear fuel rods. More recently, it acquired land from the Bureau of Land Management to raise buffalo, but Fletcher said the herd is small.

The tribe's suspicion of outsiders has its roots in the 19th century, Fletcher said. The federal government negotiated 18 treaties in the early 1850s that would have given California's Indians about a third of the state. State leaders successfully blocked ratification of the treaties in the U.S. Senate -- and the tribes were never told. A generation later, far smaller reservations, such as Mesa Grande, were forced upon tribes through executive order.

"There's still a lot of strong distrust," Fletcher said. "The tribes do not talk about business with strangers....They try to keep things to themselves and keep quiet."

About half of San Diego County's 18 tribes either have or are pursuing gambling operations, Fletcher said. Among the latest are Mesa Grande's neighbors.

The Santa Ysabel Indians announced in July they would build a $30-million casino with funding from an Arizona tribe. Two weeks ago, the La Jolla band said it had a deal with a Texas corporation to build a casino and hotel on its land.

"The last contact I had with Mesa Grande, I didn't realize they were doing anything. That was probably three months ago," said Manny Sanchez, a senior field investigator with the National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates tribal casinos. "I don't think they lied to me. They just said they were not sure what they were going to do."

Some on the reservation, such as the man in the pickup truck who guarded the entrance to the reservation's private road Thursday, say they don't know what's going on either.

"We're about as well informed as you are," he said.

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