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Charity Bingo Halls Fear Their Number May Be Up

Revenue from the game has shrunk in recent years, leaving many nonprofits in a pinch. Indian casinos are blamed.

November 29, 2005|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Calif. — On an oak-studded ranch east of town, the kids are getting healed on horseback.

Johnny, a 4-year-old with cerebral palsy, ambles along with Bo, a veteran quarter horse. Michaela, tiny and developmentally delayed by a chromosomal abnormality, sways atop her mount, Rico. It's fun and therapeutic. Ride to Walk, the Placer County program is called, and it exists in no small part because of charity bingo.

But the nonprofit's flow of revenue from the local bingo hall has shrunk in recent years, a fate shared by many charities around California. Most blame the scores of Indian casinos that have sprouted across the state.

Ride to Walk saw its bingo profits plummet after the swank Thunder Valley Casino opened in 2003 just up the freeway, about 20 miles north of Sacramento. The casino and resort quickly became what gaming analysts say is the West's most prosperous Indian gambling emporium.

Before Thunder Valley, the charity's weekly bingo night at a bare-bones hall in suburban Sacramento fetched as much as $150,000 a year. Now its Tuesday night session runs in the red, and the organization suffered a net loss of $6,600 on bingo during the last fiscal year.

"It's fund-losing," said Pam Moore, assistant director of the therapeutic riding program. The obvious culprit, she believes, is Thunder Valley, which offers Vegas-style slot machines in a go-go atmosphere.

Industry analysts confirm the connection. Though some Indian casinos have given generously to charity, analysts estimate that revenue from charity bingo in the state has been slashed nearly in half in some spots near Indian casinos.

A few halls that once were full of grandmothers and middle-aged bingo junkies have shut down altogether. Sacramento County, one of the few spots in the state that keeps tabs on charity bingo proceeds, has seen receipts drop 31% in the last dozen years.

In the early 1990s, Ernie Medeiros had 20 competitors selling bingo supplies -- play sheets, machines, marking daubers -- to halls across Northern California. Now, in an era of shifting demographics and jackpot expectations that make bingo seem passe, he has three.

"Slots attract people to the Indian casinos, and they have concerts and all that stuff," said Medeiros, a Bay Area vendor. "The older crowd dedicated to bingo is passing away, and younger people go for the bigger pot. We can't compete with that."

That has been the story all over the country in regions where Indian casinos have opened. Connecticut, according to state figures, saw charity bingo proceeds drop 24% in the decade since the opening of the sprawling Mohegan Sun resort, the second of two mammoth Indian casinos that now dominate gambling on the Eastern Seaboard.

It's the sort of consequence California voters never imagined when they approved high-stakes gambling on reservations in 1998. When that decision -- intended to help offset centuries of wrongs against Native Americans -- was overturned by the courts, the electorate responded by overwhelmingly backing tribal casinos again in March 2000.

In the years since, Indian casinos have become a $5-billion-a-year industry in California. While drawing persistent criticism from foes in local communities, they have become highly coveted donors among politicians.

During the 2003 recall, tribes were the dominant contributors, giving more than $9 million to gubernatorial candidates, and they have increasingly been viewed as a bountiful funding source for California's consistently needy state and local governments.

Casino tribes also have given generously to hundreds of charities around the state. The Sycuan Indian band handed out $400,000 last Christmas, and the Morongo tribe routinely doles out $2 million a year to charity, along with 6,000 turkeys each Thanksgiving.

Thunder Valley's proprietors, the 235-member United Auburn Indian Community, joined with the nearby Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians to write a $1-million check toward tsunami relief. They've also funneled more than $2.4 million to charities in southern Placer County over the last two years, becoming what tribal spokesman Doug Elmets called the largest philanthropic organization in the Sacramento region.

Elmets said casino tribes all over the state "have been willing to step up to the plate to help these nonprofits."

Among those benefiting was Ride to Walk, which got $10,000 a year ago from the United Auburn tribe.

Dr. Kris Corn, a physical therapist who founded the program two decades ago with a dream and a $100 Welsh pony named Freckles, said she was disappointed that Thunder Valley -- now grossing about $400 million a year -- couldn't ante up the $50,000 her group requested.

"If you think about the money they're taking from the community, we didn't get much," Corn said. "They're trying to make it seem they're charitable-minded, but I don't think it's so. They could do so much more."

Tribal leaders were rankled a year ago when program leaders groused on a local TV news broadcast about the size of the donation.

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