Today, the southwest corner of the intersection of Main Street and Interstate 15 sees a regular flow of traffic from Hesperians and visitors, eager to part with their money. But they're going to the High Desert Gateway shopping center, anchored by a Super Target store.

They're not going to the empty lot next door. Five years ago, the lot was Hesperia's field of dreams. Hesperia city council members said it would pay for more firefighters, police and pave more roads.

On March 2, 2004, more than 14,000 Hesperians turned out to vote on Measure X, which had been promoted as a referendum on a proposed casino to be built at Main Street and Interstate 15 by the Timbisha Shoshone tribe of Death Valley. Fifty-eight percent of voters approved the measure -- which would have had the city accepting revenue from the casino in exchange for providing municipal services -- after a divisive campaign that split the city in two.

But five years later, the only construction on the site is done by field mice.

"I keep hearing things, then I don't hear nothing," said Councilman Ed Pack, the only remaining member of the city council to vote in favor of the Municipal Services Agreement between the tribe and city in August 2003. "Is it dead? No. But it's definitely on life support."

Land swap deal

Both proponents and opponents touted Measure X as a vote on the casino coming to Hesperia, but that decision didn't actually rest with local residents or officials.

"We couldn't guarantee that a casino would open up. We couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't open up," said former councilman Dennis Nowicki, the loudest proponent of the project in 2003 and 2004. "We just wanted to protect the city in the event that it did."

The Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act passed by the United States Senate in 2000 formally laid out the tribe's lands. The law noted there was land in Nevada that was historically part of the tribe's lands, but was now in private hands. The act stated that if the Nevada land couldn't be acquired, another parcel of land could be substituted instead. Casino developer Gary Fears knew just the place: Property at the top of the Cajon Pass, on a stretch of highway that connects Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and the tribe quickly agreed on the Hesperia property.

But Fears' Renaldo Corporation wasn't the only development company courting the tribe, and competing companies wooing different factions of the tribe soon mired the Timbisha Shoshone in a series of leadership battles, including accusations of voter fraud in tribal council elections.

The leadership disputes are "now finally resolved," according to tribal council member Erick Mason.

"The casino project in its current status is on standby as the tribe is currently actively seeking a new development partner that has the financial ability, experience and reputation to make the casino a reality for the tribe and people of Hesperia," Mason said by e-mail. "Both the tribe and people of Hesperia are being negatively affected by the huge losses in our economy. Our ability to help people is in the jobs the casino will create."

What might have been

In March 2004, things looked very different, with a casino expected to open in as little as 18 months after the vote. Had the casino and its hotel opened in September 2005 or soon after, the city of Hesperia might have looked very different today.

"Financially, the city would be considerably better off," said Pack, who estimates the casino might have put $6 million in the city's coffers each year. "There would have been a lot of other development out there. ... Probably have as much business out there as Bear Valley Road and the freeway."

"We'd have a huge impact to our quality of life, as I see it," said Councilwoman Rita Vogler, who opposes the casino project. "There'd be all glitz and glamour out there with all the lights. You'd have people pulling in and pulling out."

"I think that there would have been a strong revenue stream for the city years that would have been able to provide for more police, fire and infrastructure," said Nowicki. "Obviously, it's purely speculative, because it hasn't come to pass, and I don't think that it ever will."

And, of course, it would have had major impacts on the Timbisha Shoshone, especially as most of their tribal lands are within Death Valley National Park, which limits what they can do with their land.

"The tribe is at a major disadvantage in fighting the [proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain] and casino revenue could have been utilized to help our tribes fight against it, as we are out-spent by billions of dollars by the supporters and advocates of the Yucca Mountain Project," Mason said. "The tribe would have the resources to manage our lands and traditional plants and medicines. The tribe would also have the ability to pursue various green energy projects. Tribal housing and jobs are amongst the biggest problems the tribe could be working on, many of our members are displaced and in need of jobs and much needed health care."

The future

"Now, I doubt very much that this project will ever happen," said Nowicki. "Everyone's moved on. ... There'll be some sort of mixed-use commercial, which we do still need out there."

But the Timbisha Shoshone aren't giving up.

"I think as long as somebody envisions possibilities of profit ... there's always possibilities until the land has been consumed with other commercial engagements," said Pastor David Penn, who was the spokesman for Hesperia's religious leaders who were opposed to the project.

"The tribe is confident that it will secure a new development partner soon and get back on track with its commitment to the city of Hesperia and the members of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe," said Mason.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.