Published on February
Plan for Casino in Richmond Raises
Fears of a Bad Precedent
By FRANCES DINKELSPIEL
A plan to build a Las Vegas-style casino complex
on an isolated promontory on San Francisco Bay has drawn broad
support in Contra Costa County, but detractors fear that its
approval will unleash a new round of gambling places in urban
The Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians and a development
company argue that the promontory, Point Molate in Richmond,
should be transferred to the tribe. Although the 112-member
Guidiville Band’s current home is near Ukiah in Mendocino County,
about 100 miles north, its members contend that their ancestors
once roamed the shores of the bay, which gives them a claim
to the territory under a federal law.
The tribe is seeking the land, which once held the world’s
largest wine processing facility and then a Navy fuel depot,
under a “restored lands” provision of the Indian Gaming Regulatory
Act, passed by Congress in 1988.
“There is abundant evidence that they used to own this land
for a long time,” said Michael Derry, the chief executive of
the Guidiville Band, one of 109 tribes in California potentially
eligible to file similar requests. Such requests could open
areas like San Diego, Sacramento and Los Angeles to casinos,
which is expressly against the wishes of voters. In March 2000,
Proposition 1A, designed to steer Indian gambling into rural
areas, passed with 65 percent of the vote.
“What land qualifies for gaming?” said Cheryl Schmit, who
runs the anti-gambling group Stand Up for California. “It has
to be something more than ‘we had a summer camp there.’ The
tribe has to demonstrate they had authority and jurisdiction
over the land for an extended period of time. The Guidiville
can’t do that on Point Molate.”
The future of the 220-acre promontory has been debated since
1995, when the federal government closed the Point Molate Naval
Fuel Depot, which had serviced the Pacific Fleet for 53 years.
A bill sponsored by then-Representative Ron Dellums transferred
the land from the Navy to Richmond in 2003.
Shortly, the city entered into an agreement to develop Point
Molate with Upstream, an Emeryville development company. Upstream
formed a partnership with the Guidivilles to build a $1.2 billion
resort with two luxury hotels, a casino with 4,000 slot machines,
an entertainment complex, a shopping center, tribal offices,
a public ferry terminal and housing.
Upsteam has also agreed to clean up the pollution left by
the Navy, restore most of the winery’s historic buildings and
install solar panels.
The casino could bring in as much as $500 million a year,
said William Thomas, a professor of public administration of
the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The promise of a share
of that revenue for Richmond, one of the Bay Area’s poorest
cities, has softened much of the opposition. While Mayor Gayle
McLaughlin opposes the project, a majority of the Richmond
City Council supports it, in part because the developer will
pay the city $50 million for the property and another $20 million
annually. [emphasis added]
Contra Costa County spent more than $1 million hiring experts
to refute the Guidiville Band’s claims that it has historic
ties to Point Molate, but withdrew its opposition in November
after the developer promised to pay the county at least $12
million a year.
Maria Viramontes, a Richmond councilwoman who originally voted
against the casino in 2003, recently said, “It’s an opportunity
to bring investment to Richmond if it’s done properly.”
The casino is the key to making the development profitable,
and the Guidiville Band faces significant challenges in getting
it approved. It must first get the Bureau of Indian Affairs
to approve its “restored lands” application, then have the
land transferred into a trust and finally negotiate a gambling
compact with the State of California. With the environmental
requirements included, the process could take years.
The first barrier, and the most critical one, is proving to
federal officials that the tribe has both significant modern
and historical ties to Point Molate. In 1988, Congress limited
casinos to reservation land already owned by Native Americans,
but it included a few exceptions like the restored-lands provision.
When California became a state in 1849, more than 300,000
Indians lived here, but their numbers quickly dwindled as they
were driven out or died from disease and poverty. Since then,
the federal government has promised land to tribes, reneged
and taken away control of reservations. The Guidiville Band
was left landless, but regained federal recognition in 1991.
Pomos traditionally lived in northern Sonoma and Mendocino
Counties. But the Guidivilles are also descendants of Coast
Miwok and Costanoan tribes who once lived around the north
end of San Francisco Bay, and those historic ties are what
make Point Molate eligible as “restored lands,” said Mr. Derry.
Federal law does not require that Indians have lived on the
land they seek, only that they have ties to it.
The tribe spent $2 million in 2006 to prepare a report to
prove its historical connection to the bay. It cited evidence
of habitation including entries in a log of a Spanish ship
that visited the bay in the 18th century. The sailors noted
that their Indian visitors were dressed in clothes made of
tule grass — garb that closely resembles the traditional clothes
of the Coast Miwok and the Costanoans, Mr. Derry said.
But other California Indians disagree and worry that the Guidivilles’
move will trample their own rights. Nelson Pinola, chairman
of the Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomos, said in a Jan.
10 letter to tribal leaders that the Guidivilles’ historic
connections are to land in Mendocino County, not Contra Costa
“If one tribe with no historical connection to its proposed
casino site is given the restored-lands exception,” Mr. Pinola
said, “others are sure to follow.”
Why, he asked, “would urban customers continue to make the
effort to visit on-reservation casinos of tribes like mine
which are located far from urban areas?”
Tom Gedes, an adjunct professor of federal Indian law at the
University of the Pacific, called the Guidivilles’ proposal
a blatant example of “reservation shopping,” where non-Indian
developers seek out Indians to front for a project.
“If this is approved for recognition as a restored land on
fairly tenuous grounds, it would provide an incentive for other
reservation-shopping opportunities,” Mr. Gedes said.
California’s senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein,
both Democrats, have publicly opposed taking off-reservation
land into trust for gambling purposes. That is where the influence
of former Senator William S. Cohen of Maine, a partner in Upstream,
may come in. His political connections and stature in Washington
will help the Guidivilles’ case get a careful review, said
Ms. Schmit of Stand Up for California.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, also opposes urban
casinos, but with the state’s huge deficit, approving a casino
that could add $25 million a year to state coffers may be hard
to resist, said Nelson Rose, a senior professor at Whittier
“We’ve tried to develop Point Molate as a complete community
where members can live, work, worship and recreate,” Mr. Derry
said. “That’s what’s really unique about this. It’s true land
restoration, versus just chasing a piece of land to do gaming