by GEORGE RINGWALD
INDIAN GAMBLING CASINOS -- EUPHEMISTICALLY KNOWN AS "gaming" casinos -- could be the economic lifeline that Native Americans seek after more than a century of repression and massacre. Or, as one skeptic puts it, they could be no more than "a little glossy genocide."
Whatever the ultimate answer, there's little doubt that Indian casino fever is catching on in Humboldt County.
The Trinidad Rancheria Cher-Ae Heights Casino, now in its 12th year of operation and reportedly grossing $50 million annually (Tribal Council Vice Chairman Garth Sundberg won't confirm that, saying only, "It could be bigger") is now in the midst of expanding its building from 20,000 square feet to 50,000 at a cost of $4 million-$5 million.
Its next possible competitor could be the 50-member Blue Lake Rancheria, with its plans for a $17 million casino on a 9-acre site near the entrance to Blue Lake. Not expected to open until late next year, the casino will cover 44,000 square feet -- "large enough to hold special events, like boxing or concerts," notes Tribal Council Vice Chair Arla Ramsey.
Then there is the seemingly star-crossed casino proposed by the Bear River band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, off Singley Road east of Highway 101. Already there stands a steel framework on a huge concrete slab, which was begun "without any clearances," as acknowledged by Dan Hauser, onetime mayor of Arcata and state legislator and presently the tribe's consultant.
Hauser told the Journal, "I would guess that the way things are going right now, that probably they'll be in a position to open late this summer."
That doesn't jibe, however, with what I was told by the tribe's present point person, Vice Chair Janice McGinnis.
"We haven't got anything going on yet," she said. "There's nothing being built yet. We're still in the planning stage." Asked who their investor was, she said: "I don't know that I can divulge that. I'll have our attorney call you." No attorney ever did.
County Supervisor Stan Dixon, whose first district includes the site, said: "The Rohnerville one has been going on since '94, maybe even earlier when they started the process, and it's been fraught with problems They've been warring with the neighbors; particularly one neighbor. Because of some excavation they did to build a parking lot, they are damaging his well. The Tribal Council has turned over too many times for me to remember. They've had some internal conflicts within the tribe itself."
Perhaps the most controversial casino proposal is that of the 18-member Big Lagoon Rancheria. Chairperson Virgil Moorehead, who works out of an office in the Hotel Arcata, which the tribe has owned since 1989, told the Journal: "Yes, we're planning to go ahead. Right now we're just going through the regulatory process and the environmental process. There are no problems; our own outside professionals said it is all right. And we're applying to the state for a compact [the necessary casino operating guidelines]."
The Cher-Ae Heights Casino is in the process
He did not mention anything about having the county's environmental OK, however, and County Supervisor Paul Kirk said he expects there will be "issues with roads again."
The Big Lagoon proposal has lain dormant since it first came up four years ago. It ran into a lot of flak at the time from Big Lagoon residents.
A Journal article in May 1996 quoted Dan Frost, a Redding attorney who owned a cabin in Big Lagoon, as saying: "It's everybody's worst nightmare come true. What we have are developers and gamblers coming into an area to do anything they please, regardless of its effect on their neighbors and the environment."
That opposition appears likely again, but Moorehead says dismissively: "A sparse few people live out there."
Don Tuttle, environmental services manager of the county's Public Works Department, makes no bones about his feelings on a Big Lagoon casino.
"My views are the same as they were four years ago: Big Lagoon is an inappropriate place for a casino. It's fairly pristine, and my fears are that the lagoon would become polluted and would have to be closed for swimming. Between a water supply problem, noise and environmental impacts, it's just inappropriate."
Proposed entrance to the Big Lagoon Casino.
Tuttle notes that he's met before with Virgil Moorehead, "and he's always told me the rancheria doesn't want to hurt the environment. He said it would be a high-quality place that would create jobs." (That, incidentally, is frequently a favorite sales pitch of casino builders.)
Tuttle concludes: "I guess we kind of agreed to disagree."
The only other presently operative casino, besides Cher-Ae Heights, is Hoopa's Big Bear, which is also in Kirk's domain.
Kirk, noting that there is 45 percent unemployment in Hoopa, describes the casino there as "a very small facility," and said he understands from tribal representatives that "they don't really have great reason to believe they're going to expand into the future over what they have." He adds, "They're looking at other economic development projects within their community."
(Supervisor Kirk also notes that 8,000 of the 27,000 people in his district are Native American, and lays claim to having "more than any other county in California.")
Blue Lake Rancheria, also in the fifth supervisorial district, gets high marks from Kirk.
"Thus far they're doing it right, meeting with all the principal parties involved, starting to build trust in the community," he says. What a tribal council does, he adds, "is really none of our business except how do they interface with roads, services, water, sewers."
Blue Lake's Arla Ramsey not only made a point of traveling around the country to look at other casinos (including one in Foxwood, Conn., said to be the largest in the Northern Hemisphere, with a bingo hall that holds 3,000 people, a hotel with 1,700 rooms and employing 14,000), but also checked in with Monty Deer, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Agency (NIGRA) in Washington, D.C., to make sure they'd be complying with all the federal regulations.
What's more, she has taken management classes at Pepperdine University to help launch a public transit system to run from Blue Lake to Arcata, where it will connect with other hubs. With the aid of a pass-through grant from the feds to Caltrans, they will be able to buy buses costing $75,000-$80,000.
"You can see how we've supported other things than our tribal government," she says, "and we plan on continuing to do that."
The plans for the 44,000 square foot
In fact, the Blue Lake Rancheria, which is basically a Wiyot tribe, has contributed generously to the Blue Lake School and the local Fire Department, at one point raising $11,000 to contribute to the Fire Department "a whole slew of equipment," including the Jaws of Life, radios and a breathing apparatus. The tribe also turns out 26,000 meals a year at tribal headquarters, not just for Native Americans but anyone in the community.
All of the Rancheria is outside the Blue Lake city limits, notes City Manager Duane Rigge, but the city has a worry-list about casino impacts.
"We're all concerned about the water supply, and how [the casino's] going to be sewered," Rigge said in a recent interview. "We have our sewage treatment plant there, and there's concern about the hydraulic load -- how much water goes through there."
There is already leakage, he admits. After all, this is a system that was built in 1954, and Rigge says, "We don't know definitively how well it's working at any given time."
There is also concern about an expected additional burden on the Blue Lake Police Department.
"If there's a call for service," Rigge notes, "we're closer to [the casino] than the county sheriff's office. There are a lot of times when the sheriff can't respond."
Then there's the problem of road maintenance. "We don't have enough money now for road services," Rigge says.
"We're liquid," Rigge says of Blue Lake's financial status, "but financially we're a very poor community to provide services." With a population estimated at 1,350, Blue Lake's sales tax is "the lowest per capita in the county," Rigge notes, and property tax of course is "a diminishing issue."
Yet he commends the Rancheria for approaching these issues "as a good neighbor would."
Arla Ramsey, who was born in Arcata but was raised and spent most of her life on the reservation, has already met with Blue Lake Mayor Adelene Jones to discuss the issues and has given her assurance that the Rancheria will hook up to the city's sewage and water systems. (The pump station is on the north side of the tribal headquarters, and the sewer ponds in the southwest area.)
"One of the things we're working on right now," Ramsey said, "is a public meeting for questions and answers. So these things will be addressed." (The town hall forum was held Tuesday night after presstime.)
Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Chair
Chartin Road, for instance, a narrow, pot-holed lane that runs from Blue Lake Boulevard to the Tribal Council office and is principally the county's concern, will be completely overhauled. The planned procedure would be for the county to give the road to the Department of the Interior, which would then hold the road in trust for the tribe.
"We would not own the road," Ramsey explains, "but then it makes it eligible for us to receive federal funding to repair the road. The (existing) road would be torn up and totally replaced, widened and surfaced properly, and with proper drainage."
Allison Arrasmith, Ramsey's right-hand person for fiscal matters, chimed in to say: "You drive on that road when it rains, and there are huge puddles, and it's a very, very bad road."
Ramsey goes on to say: "The people down the road support us fully. [One property owner has already given the rancheria an easement to widen its driveway, and the tribe will move his barn back in return.] These people are impacted the highest of anyone."
The tribal council figures the casino will hire between 180 and 300 employees.
Ramsey, a woman who doesn't mince her words -- she was quick to tell me she doesn't usually do interviews, because she has "a very negative feeling about the press" -- is also totally up-front in discussing the casino's financial and management backers.
Excelsior Gaming, a non-Indian company out of Connecticut and Washington, will provide all the trainers for the casino staff and will bring its own people to do the initial management, Ramsey reports, all with the tribe's oversight. Paul Brody, an attorney with Excelsior, has been working with the rancheria in the initial phase, and John Setterstrong, presently managing the Lucky Eagle Casino in Rochester, Wash., will come to Blue Lake as general manager in the casino's initial stage. He will be working with Bruce Ryan, who is the tribal liaison and contracting officer.
Miller & Schroeder Investments Corp., based in Minneapolis, which is "just getting into Indian gaming," according to Ramsey, will put up the bulk of the $17 million casino cost, and Excelsior Gaming will also put up part of it -- "which we have to pay back," Ramsey is careful to note.
"And our management company gets a percentage of our profits too," Ramsey adds. "In the end, the tribe ends up with a lot less than people realize."
The tribe's 50 members approved the casino proposal with only a single dissenting vote, and they have elected not to award themselves per capita payments.
"We've elected to put the money back into the tribal government and other economic enterprises," Ramsey discloses. "And then there's a percentage of the profit we're going to donate. First on our list is Blue Lake School. Blue Lake School will profit immensely. Also the Blue Lake Fire Department. And then other county agencies and governments will receive a portion of it."
Although the Rancheria's casino plan had been pretty much "in the rumor stage now," as Mayor Jones put it at a recent City Council meeting, the rancheria made its ordinance six years ago. The Tribal Council was working quietly on it all this time and only last December chose its management company.
"It hasn't been secret," Ramsey says. "We get calls daily -- `When are you going to build your casino?'"
Ramsey, no gambler herself -- "I work a little too hard for my money, and I'm going to spend it on something else" -- said: "I understand perfectly well a lot of people's feelings about gaming, so what we really want to do at this stage is address those concerns."
Mayor Adelene Jones, who with her husband Ted came up from Riverside in Southern California 20 years ago, and who is a junior high school teacher, worries, as do other long-time Blue Lakers, about the casino's impact on the quiet, rural atmosphere of the town.
"That's going to really change Blue Lake," she said in a recent telephone conversation. At the same time, she commends Arla Ramsey for "a lot of really positive things" she's done, and the rancheria for "some wonderful things" it's done for the town.
She adds, "I wish there was some other way that tribes could recoup money they think they have lost Personally, I'm not in favor of gambling. I'm concerned about gambling as an addiction. But we have a bar in town and we have smokers; it's a free country."
Actually, a casino was not the tribe's first choice.
"We had a conifer tree farm," Ramsey says, "and then the spotted owl came along. It lasted two years. We've tried truck gardens. We have no resources other than these nine acres Our goal is to get to the point where we're accepting zero contracts and zero grants from the federal government."
If there is one thing that bugs Arla Ramsey and dozens of other Native Americans, it's the perennial song they hear from non-Indians that they never have to pay taxes.
"You know," she says, "`They don't have to play by the rules.' And we're actually the most regulated. We have certain sovereign rights, but every dollar that we get has a federal code to it and a regulation. NIGRA has to oversee all of our contracts just about everything we do in the gaming has an approval process."
And to meet state licensing rules, the casino will have to pay $900 per machine for the first 350 machines. That's a one-time payment for the first year. After that, they pay $250 per quarter per machine. For the 350 machines the Blue Lake casino expects to have, that's a hefty $350,000 annually for the state, in part to cover its casino-related activities.
"So the taxpayers are not paying for the state officials to be working on casino issues; the Native Americans are," Ramsey asserts. "They don't call it a tax, but in essence it is."
Garth Sundberg, a hefty, hearty Yurok of 46 with a touch of silver in his short-cropped hair who is the vice chair of the Trinidad Rancheria Tribal Council, voices a somewhat similar lament.
"I pay my share of taxes, I can tell you," he said in an interview last month. "If you don't live on the Rancheria [and he doesn't], I pay everything you pay." Sundberg figures that about half of the tribe's 200 members live off the rancheria property, which covers about 200 acres.
Garth Sundberg, Tribal Council Vice Chairman of the
Only 92 of the tribe are voting members, and the Tribal Council has to put major issues up to them: for example, the rancheria's spending $1.5 million last year to buy the North Coast Inn in Arcata, and for the $2.7 million purchase of the eight-acre oceanfront property comprising the marina and Seascape restaurant in Trinidad.
Of the latter purchase, Sundberg says "All the members here, all were raised here, and it's just like we wanted it -- the pier, the marina. It's like our heritage, you know It's part of us."
The rancheria now runs shuttle buses from the North Coast Inn to the casino.
The casino's earnings mean a cut for tribal members -- for garbage collection, health insurance, fire insurance, education, loans or economic development.
Asked if there had been any tribal dissenters to the original proposal of a gambling casino, Sundberg said: "Nope. Everybody was anxious to get into something. We had nothing when we started. It was a small community then. Now it's grown big time."
The casino income has helped rancheria members to build homes. "A lot of them were on welfare, and they're not on welfare anymore," Sundberg said. "Some of the money that comes from the casino goes into programs for people to go to college or to some vocational school."
The rancheria has given money to the Red Cross, to the Salvation Army, and about three months ago a $60,000 donation went to the Trinidad Elementary School.
"You know, we support so many vendors," Sundberg also notes. "Thousands of dollars go to vendors and payoffs to winners and paychecks to all our workers." The casino employs about 130, and will maybe add another 100 after the expansion is completed.
Supervisor Paul Kirk, however, does not think the casino has had much of an impact on the Trinidad economy. It didn't bring in new lodging facilities, for instance.
"I think that most of the patrons of these rural gaming facilities are right here, in our own community," he told the Journal. "I would venture to guess you're probably talking three-quarters of all the people who go through that type of gaming facility are locals -- I'm talking Humboldt County. Crescent City to Garberville to Willow Creek -- that is the greater market. They're not going to be the destination tourists like you might have in other recreation areas, like San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Reno."
Supervisor Stan Dixon expresses similar concerns. "I think there are so many of these casinos now. I just think the market at some point plays a role, and some of them I just don't think are going to make it."
Dixon's immediate concern is about the Bear River Band's proposed casino off Singley Road in his district.
Regarding recent discussions with Hauser, the Indian band's consultant, Dixon said: "He would like for the county to support development of the casino there. We have some problems with it, particularly with road encroachment. We're also concerned about what kind of solid waste system they ever devise. There's concern among property owners surrounding it. It's all agricultural land mostly."
Singley Road, Dixon notes, "is just a very, very narrow little county road, certainly not wide enough or well constructed enough to accommodate an additional 3,500 to 5,000 cars a day."
That, amazingly enough, is what the tribe's earlier projections were, and even Hauser allows himself a small smile and says, "I think that's overly optimistic."
He goes on to say: "They [the tribe] have agreed to improve the road, widen it and [provide] drainage, from the casino to 101, which is about three tenths of a mile. They've agreed that the entrance to the casino will be designed in such a way that you can only enter from the south, so that the rest of Singley Hill will not be impacted by the casino."
But try selling that to non-Indian residents there, especially Noel Krahforst, who speaks out intensely and aggressively against the casino.
Krahforst, who bought his Singley Road home in 1992, recalls that the 60-acre tribal property then "was a pasture land, with one old residence on it." But, he adds, "There was quite an uproar because the surrounding neighbors were concerned that something like this [casino] might happen.
"And I talked with the then-tribal chairperson and I said, `Gee, you're not going to put a bingo parlor in here, are you?' And she said, `No, not at all. This is HUD-purchased property, for housing only, 20-25 homes.'"
It was with that assurance that Krahforst bought his home, put his life savings into it. However, several tribal councils have come and gone since then, and so has the promise of no casino.
From the deck of his multi-level home, Krahforst has a splendid view of the countryside, along with a not-so-splendid view of the ugly casino shell thrown up several years back.
Rancheria neighbor Noel Krahforst
"What you see there," said Krahforst, "this shell of a building, and this grading of a parking lot, and a sewage treatment plant that's no longer operative was all done illegally. There was no compact in place, there was no oversight by any agency. It was, `We're just doing it.' And that's the way it's progressed to date."
Krahforst, 54, a native Angeleno who has been up here for about 25 years now, employed as a maintenance supervisor with the Humboldt County Office of Education, does concede that the Native Americans "are trying to do it in a more responsible manner now." Then he adds, "But I don't trust Dan Hauser as having the facts. It's a very complex issue."
In fact, Krahforst is quick to take issue with Hauser's talk of a one-way in and out design of the road to the casino.
"That's what he says," Krahforst says. "That's what he would like us to believe. The plain truth is you don't close down a county road to public traffic All these mitigations don't lessen the impact of the casino in the way of traffic."
Krahforst is especially concerned about the tribe's plan for an upper level casino parking lot.
"They've taken that pasture land," he relates, "and they've taken fill, and they want to build it up to 12 feet, and shave it all down to make a platform for a parking lot. It's all above my well house, so any runoff from that parking lot will go into my well house They can flood out my well. That water is not treated, it's not filtered, it's the most reliable source on Singley Hill, and it runs drought or no drought. And it's good water.
"I'm going to get their traffic here," he continues. "I'm gonna have floodlights, car lights, head lights, strangers, car doors, 24 hours a day in my backyard, literally in my face. And I can't even protect my water. It's preposterous. This is just a can of worms."
Supervisor Dixon is a sympathetic listener to such complaints.
"Many of us feel that the middle of a very rural agricultural area is not really an appropriate place for casinos."
Dixon, now in his 12th and last year as 1st District Supervisor, says he is "not particularity opposed to gambling," although he has "seen it destroy households and that kind of thing," but he obviously objects strongly to the likes of "gaming" casinos springing up in rural agricultural areas.
He said: "I think if the country wanted to spend money to help tribes develop an economic viability themselves for their members, I'd support that. But I just think there were probably better things than gambling.
"And the other thing in my mind, now that the compacts are being entered into with the state, it opens up the larger question: Should the people of California have the right to say we want gambling or do not want gambling in our state? And if we do want it, is it just limited to tribal casinos? Or are we going to open it up to gambling, period?"
He gives one pause in mentioning the possibility: "Because I think some of the Nevada gaming interests are supportive of it and are going to be involved in the tribal casinos."
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