The fate of California's first major urban casino is in the hands of Richmond voters next Tuesday. The huge Indian-run, Las Vegas-style casino and resort is proposed for a section of the Richmond shoreline near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge known as Point Molate. And depending on whom you believe, it will either be a mega attraction that will add tens of millions of dollars in new revenue to the cash-strapped city, or it will be a crime magnet that will entice residents to gamble away their livelihoods. Indeed, the outcome of the election likely will depend on how voters feel in general about gambling and casinos.
The question of whether to go forward with the proposed Point Molate casino is posed in Measure U. Although it's only an advisory measure, the election results are expected to carry significant weight. If Richmond voters approve Measure U, then it will send a strong signal to the city council to approve the casino deal proposed by the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians. And if the measure loses, it will send a clear message to the council to reject the plan.
In the final weeks of the campaign, opponents of Measure U have focused on the societal ills associated with gambling and casinos. They contend that a giant casino with 4,000 slot machines will attract crime to a city that has struggled mightily in recent years to lower its high-crime rate. And they say it will prompt a wave of gambling addiction, particularly among the city's low-income residents who won't be able to resist the chance of winning a quick buck at the tables.
"In a city like Richmond, where we've been working so hard to fight crime, it makes no sense," said Jovanka Beckels, a progressive running for Richmond City Council on a slate with Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who also opposes Measure U. "We're trying to build a community that's healthy and vibrant. A casino is not the way to go."
But many Richmond business leaders believe the casino will be a shot in the arm for the city's long-struggling economy. Once built, the $1.2 billion resort will rival Chevron as the city's largest employer. And supporters note that the project would include a 1,100-room hotel, a conference center, restaurants, shops — and a guaranteed $20 million in new revenues for the city. Proponents also note that tax revenues generated by the much smaller Casino San Pablo have financed beautification projects in that city. And the casino in San Pablo hasn't prompted a crime wave, as some had feared.
"There's a lot of positive economic impacts that it's going to have for Richmond," said Judith Morgan, president of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. "I think it's hard for some people to imagine Richmond having such a spectacular conference center and resort."
Measure U also got a big boost last week, when the Guidiville tribe and its development partner, Upstream LLC, announced a settlement deal with local environmental groups. The pact calls for the tribe to spend $48 million acquiring and protecting open space along the Richmond shoreline. The project itself also promises to be eco-friendly. The green design calls for solar panels on all the buildings, passive cooling and heating, gray-water recycling, and storm-water reuse.
The casino would be a boon to the Guidiville band, a small, destitute tribe from the North Bay. In 1958, the federal government illegally stripped the Guidiville band of its official tribal status, and sold its rancheria to private interests. The tribe finally got its official tribal status back in 1991, following a successful lawsuit against the US government. But by then, it had no land to call its own. The tribe now wants to resettle at Point Molate.
Originally, Harrah's Casino was going to bankroll the Point Molate project. But it was eventually replaced by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, an Indian tribe that operates the lucrative Cache Creek Casino and Resort in Yolo County. The Wintun tribe will operate Point Molate for the first several years, while training the Guidiville band in casino-resort management. Eventually, the Guidiville band will take total control of the 413-acre Point Molate operation.
But not all opponents of Measure U are against it because they object to gambling and casinos. Nearby card clubs have funded a campaign to kill the project out of fear that it will devastate their businesses.
In addition, Councilman Tom Butt, who originally voted for the Point Molate project, now opposes it because he believes the City of Richmond should get a better deal for its land. He contends that Upstream LLC and the Guidiville band have refused to mitigate some of the problems that the casino will create. He notes, for example, that the draft environmental impact report of the project shows that it will cause traffic tie-ups at the foot of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. "In my opinion, it's a mess and there are things that need to be cleaned up," he said of the project's details. "I can no longer support this because there are just too many problems with it."
Measure U, however, will not be the final word on the casino. Even if it wins, the casino must still obtain approval from the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the Interior Department. Upstream has hired William Cohen, former defense secretary in the Clinton administration, to lobby for the deal in Washington. But he's facing a formidable foe — Senator Dianne Feinstein, who recently announced her opposition to Measure U. Feinstein also is the chair of a Senate subcommittee that controls the Interior Department's purse strings.