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Is the Hesperia casino really 'terminated'?

Project developers -- and even some opponents -- believe Gov. Schwarzenegger's list of urban areas isn't necessarily a death knell for the Hesperia tribal casino

Staff Writer

(Originally published May 24, 2005.)

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took aim at off-reservation casinos last Wednesday, with a proclamation that could destroy plans for a tribal casino in Hesperia.

In a proclamation outlining his rationale -- including the resounding defeat of statewide ballot initiatives Propositions 68 and 70 in 2004 that sought to expand gambling in urban areas -- Schwarzenegger declared that his office would oppose the tribal acquisition of lands in urban areas for gambling.

Using the definition of "urbanized area" as set forth in state law, the proclamation effectively prevents any incorporated city or town of 100,000 residents from being home to a tribal casino, or any area, like Hesperia, that borders another city or town that together would total 100,000 residents. Schwarzenegger thus promised to turn down any proposed casinos in Hesperia, Victorville and Apple Valley.

The Hesperia City Council in August 2003 signed a Municipal Services Agreement with the Timbisha Shoshone tribe of Death Valley to build a casino on the northwest corner of Main Street and Interstate 15 in Hesperia. A referendum the following March served as an effective vote by residents on the casino - residents voted whether or not the city should accept casino funds paid to the city under the MSA - passed with 59 percent of the vote after a contentious mid-term election season.

Wait-and-see attitude

Both casino supporters and opponents were taking a wait and see attitude as to the impact of Schwarzenegger's proclamation on the Hesperia casino proposal, which has been working its way through the federal and state approval processes for more than 18 months.

"Really, the casino issue was out of our hands after the election on Measure X," Mayor Jim Lindley said Friday. "It's so hard to say, since there's been so many turns. ... It looked bad when there were lawsuits filed [against the casino and the city], then it looked good. ... It's just another turn on a bumpy road."

"This is completely out of the city's hands. This is between the state of California and the federal government," Councilman Ed Pack said. "It might be dead, that we don't know. My personal opinion, I think it's going to go forward with no problem."

Pack pointed out that the Rinaldo Corporation has invested millions of dollars into the project, including buying land around the casino site.

"To me, you don't spend $15 to $20 million, whatever [was] spent, unless you know something is going to happen."

Lindley and Pack were part of the 3-2 city council majority that originally approved the MSA in August 2003. One of the council members who voted against the MSA, Councilwoman Rita Vogler, said she isn't viewing Schwarzenegger's announcement as the death of the casino project. Not yet.

"I think it's way too early for people to start celebrating on the side of the 'No,' that's for sure," Vogler said last Thursday. But if the casino project is history, she has plans to block a repeat of the casino fight in future. "If, in fact, the issue of the casino is over, done, ended, whatever, this is the perfect opportunity for the city council to adopt a resolution to say that no gaming will come into the City of Hesperia. And I think I have the three votes."

Chad Presnell, vice-president of the Rinaldo Corporation, the development company working with the Timbisha to build the Hesperia casino, said the proclamation will have no impact on the casino proposal.

"I have talked to a few of our guys in the field in Sacramento yesterday. ... Arnold told our guys that, if we have local support and have an MSA, he will not oppose the project. N-O-T," he said. "We have the Timbisha Homeland Act ... and we have the MSA and we have the MSA and community support beyond 55 percent."

Presnell said the official whose decision really matters in the casino battle is United States Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton.

"Obviously, Schwarzenegger has a big decision to make, but at the end of the day, the biggest decision comes from Gail Norton's office," he said. Norton still has to agree the Timbisha Shoshone have historical ties to the Hesperia region, far from the rest of their tribal lands in and around Death Valley, and then approve their proposal for a casino after adding the Main Street property to the list of Timbisha Shoshone tribal lands.

"We have everything that we need. What we don't have and what we need is the authorization from the Secretary of the Interior," Presnell said. "It's anyone's guess what will happen from Gail Norton's office."

"What the proclamation focuses on are projects where the governor's concurrence is needed for land to be taken into trust," said Rinaldo Corporation in-house legal counsel Victor Cassini. "Ours is simply not that case because of the [Timbisha Homeland Act] that was passed for the benefit of the tribe" by Congress in 2000.

Cheryl Schmidt, a statewide anti-casino activist who was one of the governor's co-chairs on the committees against Propositions 68 and 70, said the Rinaldo Corporation take on what the proclamation means for the Hesperia casino project is "baloney."

"There's no way Hesperia is going to meet all four criteria of [the governor's criteria for approving a casino proposal] there, and there's no way that doesn't apply to them," Schmidt said Friday.

In addition to being built outside an urbanized area, Schwarzenegger's other requirements include support from the local community and local government and the project must serve a "clear, independent public policy, separate and apart from any increased economic benefit or financial contribution to the state, community or the Indian tribe that may arise from gaming."

Unlike other businesses

"Understand, this is not like any other business. This is taking a section of land out of the regulatory authority of the state, and there has to be a reason to do that," Schmidt said. "Quite frankly, Hesperia doesn't meet this standard."

Not all opponents of the Hesperia casino proposal are quite so sure that victory is at hand.

"The governor is a great guy," laughed David Penn, one of the leaders of the Concerned Citizens Against the Casino, which sought to defeat Measure X in March 2004. "We have crossed one of the major hurdles in stopping the off-reservation casino shopping in Hesperia. The other component is to get the same kind of pronouncement from [US Secretary of the Interior] Gail Norton. That will be the death knell of the casino.

"Rinaldo has spent and will spend whatever is necessary to continue pursuing the casino," he said.

"They're going to go to the wall and they're going to push their connections at the [federal Bureau of Indian Affairs].

"I'm not assuming the battle's won, because there's been several times we felt that we had prevailed and they came back."

'Just wait and see'

And the man most associated with the casino proposal in the minds of many voters, Dennis Nowicki, who was mayor when the proposal first came before the city council, and remains one of its most vocal supporters, said that Schwarzenegger may change his tune.

"With all due respect to our Gov. Schwarzenegger, there's been all sorts of things where he's done or said something, and he's later backtracked on these things," he said. "For my part, I'd just wait and see. At the end of this day, this is not over by a long shot."

Those on all sides of the casino fight all agree on one thing: They want a definitive answer.

"Because of the controversy in the community, I'd like it resolved, one way or the other," Lindley said. "Yes or no."

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at [email]beau@hesperiastar.com[/email] or 956-7108.

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