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At a crossroads: The architectural model for the proposed $100 million gaming facility details the location of the mammoth--175,000-square-foot--casino and hotel complex. Neighbors and public officials want it built someplace else.

Roll of the Dice

Critics take a stand as Pomo tribal leaders push ahead with plans for a Wine Country casino

By Jeremy A. Hay

REG ELGIN, a spry 61-year-old former Marine, leads a visitor down a dusty road alongside a small, roughly triangular canyon, the sides of which are grown thick with manzanita, madrone, scrub oak, and small pines. Elgin is spokesman for the Dry Creek band of Pomo Indians, and the canyon is part of the tribe's reservation, the Dry Creek Rancheria--75 acres of steep, arid hillside overlooking the Alexander Valley.

The canyon, located above the winding, two-lane Highway 128, is also the future site of a project that Elgin says represents the tribe's hopes and dreams for a more prosperous and healthy future--a planned $100 million casino, hotel, and restaurant complex.

"We have an opportunity now, and it's called economic development," says Elgin, a full-blooded Pomo. "We will go from nearly zero income to a place where we can afford to offer tribal housing, educational scholarships, youth programs, and health services."

The tribe's partner in the development is Mark Advent, a Las Vegas casino designer and developer who is best known for his opulent New York, New York casino on the Vegas strip. Advent's vision for the project, Elgin says, "has probably come as close as anyone to mirroring our hopes and dreams for a world-class casino, with none of the neon and glitz and gaudiness, with nothing up on the hill where people could see it, with no visual or noise pollution."

A photograph of the model of the casino shows a flat, five-story terraced structure rising from the very bottom of the canyon, surrounded by sloping walls of trees and foliage. Tennis courts and two rectangular four- or five-story buildings are located on the flat roof of the larger base. The mammoth structure sits well below any of the surrounding ridgelines.

According to Advent, the casino itself, together with the restaurant and hotel facilities, will occupy about 175,000 square feet, while the entire structure, including parking areas, will top out at about 1 million square feet. The design, he says, was "inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's principles of blending the environment in harmony with the architecture.

"We will aspire to greatness, Elgin says, "and we will get that."

LARRY CADD, a lifelong neighbor of the reservation, sees in the proposed casino--which is expected to operate around the clock, seven days a week--an entirely different prospect. He and other Alexander Valley residents opposing the project say it will bring with it overwhelming traffic problems and may signal the beginning of the end for the valley's bucolic existence.

Cadd, whose house sits about 500 yards from the proposed site, doesn't argue with the Pomos' right to develop the casino on their land, and he agrees that "it will be out of sight for me and the majority of people."

But he says the tribe, like any property owner, has a responsibility to consider the project's impact on the surrounding community.

"It's not just a matter of building a casino and having a little traffic problem," he says. "It's a matter of absolutely, completely jamming the road shut, which is going to interfere with their own ability to operate their business, and it's the beginning of the commercialization of this area."

On March 21, 14 days after the passage of Proposition 1A, which legalized Nevada-style gambling on California's Indian lands, Sonoma County supervisors, while acknowledging they have little or no say in the matter, unanimously approved a resolution that "strongly opposes the establishment of an Indian gaming facility in Alexander Valley."

Casino opponents have formed a task force to look for what they hope will be a more suitable location, and have asked for help in that effort from Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Arcata, as well as other local politicians. Two weeks ago, local opponents of the Dry Creek casino joined protesters from throughout the state on the Capitol steps to ask Gov. Gray Davis to help curtail the gaming facilities.

During the 1990s, casino foes successfully defeated a pair of planned Indian gaming facilities, one in the Fountain Grove area of Santa Rosa, the other just a mile south of Petaluma.

A meeting with tribal leaders, task force members, and representatives of Thompson, Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, D&-Duncans Mills, and state Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Ukiah, is scheduled for Aug. 29.

Tribal leaders and Advent, their partner in the project, agree that the rural hillside isn't the best possible location. It is out of the way, is difficult to build on, and has inadequate water and sewage. But they note with some irony that their limited options result from historical events that are hardly the fault of the tribe, whose reservation was created by the government in 1915.

"Would we prefer to have a location that would be more accessible and visible in a more commercial district? Sure," says Advent. "Would the Dry Creek band of Pomos, when they were displaced and their homelands taken from them, would they have preferred to be in a more accessible location? Sure. But that's not an option."

THE 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act gave Indian tribes permission to operate gambling businesses on their reservations. But the act also said that, with few exceptions, gaming is not allowed on land acquired after 1988 and placed into trust for a tribe.

"We hope they're successful in finding an alternative site," Advent says, "and if the task force were to create a legal solution, we would certainly work together and be open-minded to that kind of alternative."

Cheryl Diehm, a district representative for Thompson, says the congressman has said that "if everyone agrees, and if suitable land can be found to be put into trust for the tribe to locate their casino on, [he'll] work in Washington to make that happen.

"We have to come up with something that's attractive to the tribe and the developer," says Cadd. "Everyone has to be happy with it, otherwise it won't work."

What would be the first Indian casino in Sonoma County was one of dozens of similar projects unveiled by tribes around California in the wake of Prop. 1A. Many of those plans are now being opposed by people who argue that because Indian lands are considered sovereign and largely exempt from state or local regulations, the casinos may be built without regard to their impact on surrounding communities.

ACCORDING to Elgin, in recent years, the Dry Creek Pomos had received as many as a dozen offers to help develop a casino project on their reservation. Some three dozen Indian casinos were already operating throughout the state, some for almost a decade, often in a sort of ongoing legal shadowland while battles were fought in court and with the Wilson administration over what level of Indian gaming was allowed. Elgin says the tribe opted, despite the millions of possible dollars at stake, to wait both for the right offer and until the legal coast was entirely clear.

"At no time did we ever think about flouting the law and hoping we'd get away with it," he says, suggesting that the tribe's restraint in the past should help reassure critics that the casino development will go forward in a manner sensitive to the surrounding community and area.

"We're not thumbing our nose at people," he says. "The future of the valley includes us. We go to the same schools, shop at the same stores, use the same banks."

An environmental impact report commissioned by the tribe and showing how it intends to mitigate the casino's impact on traffic and address the water and sewage difficulties will be completed by Aug. 21, Elgin says, in time for a question-and-answer tour of the site scheduled for county officials.

Meanwhile, an interim casino is slated to open next spring. Preliminary site work is already under way and five of the 12 Pomo families living on the reservation have been relocated to new homes.

Construction on the permanent casino complex is tentatively scheduled to begin next summer.

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From the August 17-23, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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