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click to enlarge Desert oasis? The Big Lagoon Rancheria sure hopes so.  Drawing courtesy Big Lagoon Rancheria.
  • Desert oasis? The Big Lagoon Rancheria sure hopes so. Drawing courtesy Big Lagoon Rancheria.

In just two months, the Big Lagoon Rancheria may finally throw in its cards on a big hotel-casino project it has proposed to build in Barstow, in tandem with the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians of San Diego County. The tribes’ gaming compacts, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, would allow them to build a double casino/resort in the Mojave Desert. But the compacts have languished in the state legislature for nearly two years now, failing to be ratified before the end of last year’s session and facing possible failure again this session.

If that happens, says Big Lagoon chairman Virgil Moorehead, his tribe will return to its original plans to build a casino at Big Lagoon, north of Arcata along the coast — a site environmental groups and state agencies have deemed too environmentally sensitive for such a development.

Moorehead, speaking by cell phone Tuesday from Las Vegas, where he was attending a training session for supervisors, sounded frustrated and impatient. He blames opposition from influential, wealthy gambling tribes for the legislature’s stalling on the compacts. These tribes have said that the Los Coyotes and Big Lagoon compacts, which include provisions to allow union organizing and to give the state a more generous portion of their winnings than other casinos do, could impact other tribes’ gaming operations. They’ve also accused the Barstow casino proponents of “reservation shopping” — Big Lagoon Rancheria is 700 miles from Barstow and Los Coyotes more than 100. But Moorehead points out that, in fact, Gov. Schwarzenegger asked Big Lagoon to hook up with Los Coyotes to build a casino-resort in Barstow, in order to put to rest a legal battle between Big Lagoon and the state.

The big opposition tribes also were seeking ratification of revised gambling agreements to expand their operations. And, in late June, four of them — the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation — had their gambling agreements approved by the legislature. The Governor signed bills ratifying those agreements on July 10. The expansion could mean up to 17,000 new slot machines among the four tribes, and a third casino for one of them.

“It’s the single largest expansion of gambling in history,” says Jason Barnett, of the public relations firm Singer Associates, which represents Big Lagoon and Los Coyotes. “And here the Big Lagoon and Los Coyotes tribes have been waiting nearly two years, and at most they would have 2,500 slots each, but probably, to start, just 1,250 each.” Barnett isn’t sure what effect the passage of the bigger tribes’ compacts may have on the Barstow compacts. “We’re hoping that now that they’ve got theirs, they’ll cease their opposition.”

But Moorehead’s pessimistic.

“Nothing’s really changed,” said Moorehead. “It doesn’t look good that the [big tribes’ expansions] got through and we weren’t included. And [the legislature’s] still dealing with the budget, and we’re low priority. The assembly’s recessed until Aug. 20, and then we’ll have four weeks. We’ll have to scramble. And to be honest with you, the Governor’s got to do it. The Governor needs to make the call. It’s at a higher level now, and there’s not much more I can do.”

Big Lagoon’s compact has to make it through the legislature and be ratified by the governor by Sept. 17, after which the original compact expires. If the legislature again fails to move on the compacts, Big Lagoon will return to the legal battle to build a casino at Big Lagoon.

Moorehead — not a casino gambler, himself, incidentally — hopes they end up in Barstow. “There’s all that work we put into it,” he said. Then again, he’s also “spent over $100,000 studying the lagoon project. And there’s not a doubt in my mind I can do it.” Either way, he figures he’ll build a casino.

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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