Elk Grove council approves $132 million casino deal after ardent debate
BY PETER HECHT
Elk Grove City Council members voted unanimously Wednesday night to approve a casino development agreement with the Wilton Rancheria, providing a major boost to the local tribe's effort to build a gambling destination along Highway 99.
The council vote culminated a meeting in which citizens turned out for a sometimes vehement discussion on whether the tribal casino would be a job creating benefit for the city or a threat to the quality of life in the Sacramento suburb of 161,000 residents.
City Council members listened late into the evening as more than 40 speakers sparred over the major gambling development plans of the south Sacramento County tribe.
In the end, the council’s four other members sided with Mayor Gary Davis, who said he believed the project would provide an economic boon to the city that wouldn't damage its character as “a diverse, family-oriented community.” He also argued that the city couldn't stop the casino if federal agencies approve the tribe's plans.
“The bottom line is that if the federal government says yes to the tribe, this project will happen.” Johnson said. “I respect the sovereignty of the tribe. They have a legal right to do what they are doing.”
The 700-member Wilton Rancheria has promised to pay the community $132 million over 20 years to offset the impacts of the tribe’s planned $400 million casino development near 99 and Grant Line Road, with continuing payments afterward along with adjustments for inflation. City officials said the agreement would pay Elk Grove twice the amount of revenues of a retail project of the same scale.
The tribe is seeking to build a resort including a 12-story, 302-room hotel, a convention center and entertainment facility along with restaurants, bars and a sprawling gambling floor next to a half-built shopping mall, which stalled in the recession.
In a City Council chambers packed with button-wearing tribal members backing the project, Wilton Rancheria chairman Raymond C. Hitchcock hailed the casino venture as an economic catalyst for Elk Grove, with the tribe as a revenue-producing partner in “a life long relationship” with the community.
“We're going to be the catalyst to get the outlet mall up and running, and have those retail stores we've been waiting for many years...with great entertainment options we all want and deserve,” said Hitchcock, who said the development will produce more than 1,750 full-time jobs.
City officials had argued that Elk Grove had no choice but to negotiate with the tribe. Staff documents submitted to the City Council said the agreement isn’t intended to “facilitate the construction of the casino” but rather to pay for the impacts of the development “in the event that it is ultimately approved by the United States government and the State of California.”
Patty Johnson, a retired teacher and longtime Elk Grove resident, complained that citizens were being denied information and input by the city as a massive gambling development was being forced upon the community.
“Elk Grove has been very marketable over the years because of its schools, parks and small-town atmosphere,” Johnson said. “This is our brand. The casino damages our brand…This is not how democracy is supposed to function. We don't want this casino. We are not a place where people come to throw away money they cannot afford to lose.”
The new gambling facility would likely be a major regional competitor to one of California’s most lucrative tribal casinos, the Thunder Valley Casino Resort off Highway 65 near Lincoln.
It would join a crowded gambling market that includes the Red Hawk Casino in Shingle Springs, Cache Creek Casino Resort in Yolo County and the Jackson Rancheria in Amador County. Another tribe, the Enterprise Rancheria, has suspended construction on a $170 million gambling resort near Marysville.
The tribe’s casino development, on 36 acres along the southern edge of Elk Grove, would require demolishing four buildings erected as part of the earlier shopping mall project. Construction on the mall stopped during the economic downturn, and the city has since pinned its hopes on an outlet mall proposed for the abandoned site. The planned Outlet Collection at Elk Grove is also to include a 14-screen movie theater.
Kevin Kemper, an attorney for the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the defunct mall and adjoining property, told the City Council that approving the casino agreement would trigger “an unbelievable synergy of land use at this location” and send a strong message to prospective tenants.
The Wilton tribe still must reach a gambling compact with Gov. Jerry Brown or a future governor. In addition, it must obtain approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Commission to acquire the land it needs.
In 2009, the city of Elk Grove and Sacramento County contested a federal lawsuit by the Wilton Rancheria that led to restoration of its tribal status. The city and county charged that the federal government improperly agreed to let the tribe take ownership of rural land amid walnut orchards.
The dispute pushed the tribe to explore more urban development alternatives near freeways.
The tribe in 2013 proposed building a casino and hotel on 282 acres along Highway 99 near Galt, a plan that drew protests from environmental groups over potential impacts on sensitive wetlands and wildlife habitat.
On Wednesday, the new casino location got a qualified endorsement from Brandon Rose, president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento.
“We felt the Elk Grove location would be the best location to put a large development, if you have to put this project somewhere,” Rose said. “We're hoping the Wilton Rancheria will join us in protecting wildlife habit in their ancestral area.”