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Indian Casino Has Rural Residents Up in Arms

Gambling facility in bucolic valley west of Sacramento attracts a stream of patrons--and locals' complaints.

March 29, 2004|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

CAPAY, Calif. — Thaddeus Barsotti remembers when he could ride his bicycle along the two-lane highway next to his family farm here, meeting only an occasional slow-moving tractor.

Nowadays, the bike is in the barn. Barsotti, 23, spends time coming to the aid of motorists who barrel through his fence in their race to the giant Cache Creek casino a few miles up the road.

"We've had six people crash into our land," Barsotti said. "Three people have died just on this stretch in front of our place." One driver hurtled into Barsotti's strawberry roan quarter horse, which required extensive veterinary care.

Before the proliferation of Indian casinos began changing the face of California, the beautiful, secluded Capay Valley was a quiet enclave for organic farmers like Barsotti and for nature lovers who came to watch the large tule elk herd and the bald eagle colonies.

The Cache Creek Casino Resort has been expanding steadily since it opened in 1985. But when a $200-million redo is completed this spring, the bucolic valley 40 miles west of Sacramento will be home to "the largest casino resort in Northern California," say promoters for the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, which owns the gambling operation.

What started as a modest bingo parlor already attracts thousands of customers daily. The throngs clog narrow State Route 16 bisecting the valley, boost crime rates and turn the country night sky into a spectral glow of 24-hour commerce.

According to Bruce Naliboss, an investigator for the Yolo County district attorney, the Cache Creek casino accounted for 97 drug arrests in the 12-month period ending Feb. 10, more than twice the number than in the nearby university town of Davis, which has a population of more than 60,000.

By adding a sprawling new casino hall, eight restaurants and a 200-room hotel complex, promoters hope to increase the number of gamblers from 1.8 million to 2.8 million annually, surpassing the annual draw of many major league baseball teams.

The first phase of the latest expansion, the 66,000-square-foot casino floor, is scheduled to open April 5.

Residents fear things will only get worse with another million people trooping into the valley. Faced with the tribe's federally granted sovereignty, local government has been unable to slow the rapid pace of expansion or control its scale.

The giant, Las Vegas-style gambling complex -- with its five-story parking garage and luxury hotel -- seems out of step with its pastoral setting. So does the ultramodern, 600-seat karaoke soundstage with 12 fog machines.

"There is a heaviness in my heart about all this," said Dru Rivers, who, along with her husband, Paul Muller, owns Full Belly Farm a few miles from the casino site. "These people come into our gorgeous land not even noticing who we are and what we stand for, which is smallness and keeping our community alive through healthy simplicity."

Like other unincorporated rural communities where casinos have sprouted after Californians voted four years ago to allow Nevada-style gambling on Indian lands, the Capay Valley finds itself confronted with what amounts to an instant city, incongruously inserted into the center of an agricultural setting.

Nor is the trend likely to subside unless a change in state policy allows casinos to open in urban areas, which is where most of the customers come from.

Within a radius of 100 miles, 13 other Indian casinos vie for Bay Area and Sacramento customers. Statewide, more than 50 casinos offer slot machines and other forms of Las Vegas gambling. Almost all of the growth in this estimated $4- to $6-billion-revenue business has come since former Gov. Gray Davis, a major recipient of California Indian political contributions, signed the Tribal-State Gaming Compact in 1999.

Trini Campbell, who heads the Capay Valley Coalition citizens group, said she fears that the situation will get worse if the casino acquires a liquor license for its restaurants and hotel. The casino has already been granted an interim retail permit. A hearing on the full liquor permit is scheduled for April 14.

For others, the objections are more cultural and political.

"For me," said Full Belly Farm co-owner Muller, "It is a fundamental question of where is California going? Do we really want to build our future on casinos?"

Although they run a successful business selling fruits and vegetables to restaurants that include Berkeley's celebrated Chez Panisse, Muller, 50, and his wife, Rivers, 46, feel helpless against the economic clout of the Cache Creek gambling operation, which has become the county's largest private employer. By the end of May, the Cache Creek company is expected to employ 2,200 people.

"When we try to organize against the casino, it is like facing a juggernaut," Muller said in frustration. "What ultimately happens is that we are labeled as racists."

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