Source: Sacramento Bee, By Hudson Sangree
Elk Grove’s “ghost mall” along Highway 99 has been an eyesore since construction stopped eight years ago in the midst of a deep recession. The news in 2014 that the half-built mall would become an outlet center, and last year’s announcement of a planned 14-screen cineplex, buoyed residents’ hopes that the site finally would be developed.
Now, a local tribe is seriously talking about building a casino resort – with a 12-story hotel tower, convention center, spa, restaurants and a 110,000-square-foot gambling floor – on 28 acres of the defunct mall site. The project could generate the equivalent of 1,750 full-time jobs and host up to 14,000 patrons per day, according to a detailed analysis prepared for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
With shopping and movies next door, the casino resort would provide a Las Vegas-like experience amid the farmland of southern Sacramento County, Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock, chairman of the Wilton Rancheria tribe, said at a community meeting Friday in Galt to discuss the proposed casino.
“Having that connection to it would be pretty unique,” Hitchcock said.
The small tribe lost federal recognition, and its 39 acres of land in Wilton, in 1964. It regained federal recognition in 2009, but “this did not erase the 45-year period during which the tribe experienced significant economic and governmental disadvantages,” the federal planning document said.
About 62 percent of the tribe’s families live below the federal poverty level and 45 percent of working-age members are unemployed, it said.
“The tribe was officially forgotten for 50 years,” Antonio Ruiz, Wilton Rancheria’s cultural resources officer, told federal officials at Friday’s meeting.
The proposed casino would be developed on newly purchased tribal property, which would be placed in trust as sovereign land immune from state or local regulation. The enterprise would help the tribe become self-sufficient, members said.
“It’s important for people to understand who the first people of this region were,” Joyce Dozier, a member of the Wilton Rancheria tribal council, told the approximately 200 people gathered at Friday’s meeting.
Tribal members, with the help of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, are intent on buying land along the busy Highway 99 corridor in southern Sacramento County. A primary focus of those efforts has been a 282-acre parcel of farmland north of Galt that is still under consideration.
The Elk Grove mall site only recently arose as one of the tribe’s main options after its owner, the Howard Hughes Corp., was willing to negotiate on price, Hitchcock said. With its commercial zoning and existing infrastructure, including roads and utilities, the mall site is an attractive option compared to the undeveloped farmland near Galt, the tribal chairman said.
“It’s a very viable alternative, for sure,” Hitchcock said.
Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis wrote in a note to The Sacramento Bee that the plan deserves a public airing.
“An Elk Grove high-end shopping, entertainment convention and hospitality facility is definitely worth considering,” Davis said. “At the end of the day, the tribe has sovereignty and will make their choice.”
Hitchcock told the standing-room-only crowd at Galt’s Chabolla Community Center that the 282-acre site near Twin Cities Road and the Elk Grove mall site are the tribe’s two preferred locations.
Many residents, including a number of business owners, spoke up in favor of the tribe building its casino near Galt, which has struggled economically in the past 10 years.
The city of 24,000 grew by hundreds of homes and several thousand residents as it sprawled along both sides of Highway 99 during last decade’s housing boom. Residents commuted to jobs in Sacramento and Stockton.
Then came the collapse of the housing bubble and a deep recession that started in 2007. Construction stopped, and foreclosures pockmarked the newer neighborhoods. Galt’s quaint, historic downtown, which had received major upgrades through redevelopment funding, became plagued with vacant storefronts.
A major casino resort would inject jobs, money and customers into the local economy, some speakers said.
“Galt is short of a lot of businesses,” LeeAnn McFaddin, vice chairwoman of the Galt Chamber of Commerce, said at Friday’s meeting.
Several city officials expressed concern about the proposal and asked for more time for public comment on the draft environmental impact statement that was the subject of Friday’s meeting. The public comment period ends Feb. 29.
City Attorney Steve Rudolph asked why the tribe needed 282 acres near Galt when much smaller sites were proposed elsewhere.
Some residents worried a casino would add to local traffic and undermine their small town way of life. A few pointed out that Galt had only recently gotten its first Walmart store and wasn’t prepared for the effects of a casino resort.
One speaker, Al Baldwin, said he supported the tribe’s bid to build the first Indian casino in Sacramento County but thought it belonged in a nearby community, such as Elk Grove, that might want it more.
“People move here because they don’t want all the hustle and bustle,” Baldwin said. “This is a great idea 20 minutes away.”
Hitchcock said the tribe is aware of the mixed feelings in Galt – another reason why Elk Grove is under consideration, he said.