Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Tribe, investors face uncertain odds with new administration

Jim Levine stands in the brick-faced emptiness of the historic Winehaven building and waves to where the card tables and slot machines will go, as if cocktail waitresses stand ready to fan across the room.

"We think this will be one of the top tourist destinations in California," he says.

But even if Levine's Upstream Investments and the Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians sell Richmond officials on their dream of a shoreline magnet anchored by a Vegas-style casino at the former Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot, its fate rests squarely in Washington, with an incoming Obama administration that has yet to show its cards.

Only a few tribes have won the kind of approval Guidiville seeks from the Department of RelatedInteractive feature:A tour of the Pt. Molate project, with maps and photosInterior — a narrow exception to a ban on tribal casinos on land acquired after 1988. Part regulatory, part political, the process of tribes acquiring casino land away from their reservations or recognized homelands stalled under the Bush administration. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, observers say, created a virtual moratorium in the aftermath of the scandal involving tribal lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Now tribes, gaming insiders and their critics eagerly wait to see where the president-elect, reportedly an avid poker player, stands, and who he will pick for Interior secretary and other key posts within the federal agency.

On his Web site, Obama "believes that gaming revenues are important tribal resources for funding Advertisementeducation, health care, law enforcement, and other essential government functions." He has pledged a White House liaison for Native American issues, and polls show he won their vote by a wide margin. But his views on tribes seeking casinos in population centers stands in doubt.

"It's going to depend on his Cabinet selections for Department of Interior. There is a lot of discretion there," said Michael Anderson, former deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Clinton administration. "There's a general feeling that a Democratic administration will be much more inclined to reach favorable decisions. Or at least timely decisions, versus trying to avoid the issue."

The Rev. Tom Grey, a leading opponent of gambling expansion, said he doubts the president-elect will "open the floodgates."

"When he was a state senator, he raised questions about the wisdom of a lottery. Then, when he was in the (U.S.) Senate, he raised questions about casino expansion in Illinois," Grey said. "My guess is he's going to be OK on (tribal) sovereignty, and he's going to look for economic justice. But you cross the line when you've got expansion into urban areas, this feeding frenzy."

For Guidiville, whether Point Molate qualifies as "restored lands" under the federal exception depends on the tribe showing both a "significant" historical connection and modern ties to the land. New regulations set clearer standards for what that means, but leave wiggle room. Recent decisions, based in part on court rulings, have emphasized a close proximity to the tribes' recognized homeland.

Relatives of the 112-member Guidiville tribe lived near Ukiah on one of dozens of California rancherias the federal government set up in the 1910s. In the late 1950s, the government parceled out the land to individuals and terminated benefits, promising but often failing to deliver adequate water and sewer service.

Critics charge tribes such as Guidiville with "reservation-shopping," because their former rancheria lands — the bases for their formation as recognized tribes — lie elsewhere.

Guidiville contends government actions forced its members south for work in the Bay Area under federal programs. Another tribe, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, makes the same assertion in its bid for a big casino along nearby Richmond Parkway. Both tribes won federal recognition in 1991 through the same lawsuit, and a decision for Scotts Valley, which is closer to a verdict, would likely also favor Guidiville.

Michael Derry, CEO of the Guidiville tribe's economic development corporation, also cites research showing the tribe includes Pomo, Patwin and Costanoan blood, a historical link that stretches well into the Bay Area. "It's not this particular piece of land," Derry said. "It's more of a regional significance."

Even if the tribe passes that bar, the Interior secretary still can choose to deny it federal trust land — drawing politics to the center.

One key selling point, said Derry, is that Guidiville seeks a true reservation, with tribal housing and educational facilities. Also, the tribe and developer have voluntarily submitted to a state environmental review in addition to the lengthy federal review.

The Guidiville project has political muscle to back it up: Former Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen is an equity partner.

"We're following the process to the letter of the law and doing more than we have to," Derry said. "Let's face it: At the secretary level, politics and public opinion matter."

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