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Tribe Unveils Its Casino Royale

Morongo Indians bet their $250-million facility at Cabazon will draw gamblers and be a springboard to further expansion.

December 10, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

CABAZON, Calif. — Guests strolled along a red carpet, past serpentine pools and a steaming Jacuzzi, to a heated tent big enough to hold a football field. Inside, they sipped Napa Valley Chardonnay, laughed along with "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno and rocked to the sounds of guitar legend Carlos Santana and pop sensation Destiny's Child.

It was all part of a two-day event to celebrate the opening of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians' $250-million casino resort hotel in Cabazon, a project tribal leaders hope will rival the opulent hotels and casinos in Las Vegas.

"Everything has led to this moment," Maurice Lyons, the Morongo tribal chairman, told a cheering crowd at the start of the celebration.

Lyons and other tribal leaders say the opening of the 27-story resort with views of the San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains is only the beginning of an expansion they hope will make the 32,000-acre reservation in eastern Riverside County an even bigger attraction.

Although several hotel-restaurants have yet to open, tribal leaders were already talking about adding a nearby golf course, dude ranch, fruit orchards, trailer park, shopping center and rodeo grounds.

"Once we get started, we can't stop," Lyons said. "This is just the beginning."

The 600,000-square-foot casino and hotel -- adorned with Las Vegas-style flashing lights and a blinking mega-screen sign -- replaced a 100,000-square-foot casino, which will still be used for bingo. Economists say the new facility just off Interstate 10 about 90 miles east of Los Angeles could create more than 4,000 jobs and generate nearly $2.8 billion in business in the region over the next five years.

"This casino is an economic shot in the arm for Riverside County," said former Gov. Gray Davis, one of several current and former political leaders who attended the opening-night celebration Wednesday. "It's a dream come true."

The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians will open a 12-story hotel at its Fantasy Springs Casino near Indio early next month, and a few weeks later the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians will open a 465,000-square-foot casino near Highland in San Bernardino County.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians opened its Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs a year ago, which followed the opening of the $262-million hotel and casino by the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians in 2002.

The Morongo's opening marks an economic milestone for the tribe, whose leaders recall growing up in dilapidated trailers and surviving on hunting and federal subsidies. The barren reservation was often used by outsiders to dump garbage and toxic waste.

The tribe's fortunes changed when bingo parlors were introduced on the reservations in 1983. The tribe is now the largest private-sector employer in Riverside County.

But the tribe has diversified its holdings. The tribe owns two restaurants, a gas station, a fruit stand and a lease agreement for a bottling plant operated by Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water. Casino jobs and revenue have eliminated welfare dependency on the reservation.

The new casino opened Nov. 15 and the hotel followed Nov. 24. The Wednesday night celebration was a special event to welcome tribe members and special guests. A second party Thursday night was reserved for celebrities and high-rollers.

Patrons at the slot machines and card tables gave the new casino mixed reviews Thursday.

"I think it's going to attract a lot of people because they have shops and a spa," said Donna Grunthal of Desert Hot Springs. "They have everything for everyone but you don't have to go to Las Vegas."

Marilyn Spinelli and her husband, Mario, from Eagle Rock, were not as impressed. They said the casinos in Las Vegas have bigger payouts and less expensive food.

"It's disappointing," Marilyn Spinelli said.

The 310-room hotel stands out like a futuristic lighthouse in the desert night, thanks to colored lights on the two-story penthouse that blink out designs and messages. The facility's 44 acres are landscaped with more than 500 trees. A pool, a Jacuzzi and man-made river that twists and turns hold about 316,000 gallons of water. Guests enter the hotel past huge petal-like arches that resemble an open flower.

"The fruits of the land are radiating in this casino," said Rep. Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino), one of the guests at Wednesday night's festivities.

But the tribe has suffered several setbacks recently.

Last month, voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 70, a measure that would have allowed unlimited expansion of casinos on Indian reservations. The tribe contributed $3.5 million in support of the proposition.

Lyons said the vote was not a rejection of Indian gaming but a message that voters want to keep the casinos limited to the reservations. He said the defeat would not put a damper on the Morongo tribe's expansion plans.

"We are here to stay," he said.

Meanwhile, the Schwarzenegger administration is attempting to block the Morongo tribe from operating about 200 video lottery terminals that the governor's office claims violate a state compact that limits the tribe to 2,000 slot machines.

The terminals resemble slot machines, but attorneys for the tribe say they operate differently and are not limited by the compact.

State lawyers and tribe representatives have already met to try to resolve the dispute. Another meeting is scheduled Monday.

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