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Will A New Casino Near Fresno Change Indian Gaming In The Valley?

Jul 10, 2018

Gaming tribes in the San Joaquin Valley are working different angles to seek your betting dollar.

Several projects are on the drawing board between Kern and Madera counties. There are expansions and new casinos. The first new gaming facility that will likely open is Table Mountain’s proposed casino, hotel and resort near Friant.

But with other proposals pending, when will there be too much gaming? Or is the Valley approaching oversaturation already?

Last month, Table Mountain Rancheria announced plans for a new casino, resort and hotel. It’s been years in the works. The tribe has one of the oldest casinos in the state. There will be a new events facility, bingo hall, new gaming machines and a 151-room hotel and resort.

That suits regular visitors like Desiree Uzzell. She prefers Table Mountain over other local Indian gaming establishments. She started going 31 years ago, when it opened, and plays Bingo and slots. The old casino will be renovated as tribal government offices.

“It’s a fun place to go, it’s close, it’s clean, you tend to win and they do have Bingo,” Uzzell says.

Of course, she has her favorites: “There is one machine we do particularly enjoy and it’s called Hearts Locked, you have to lock the hearts when you get into the bonus round and every time you lock a heart the bonus amount goes up.”

Uzzell already enjoys the food and is encouraged to know there will be a better ventilation system, an issue the tribe is anxious to address.

Table Mountain tribal lawyer Daniel Casas says the tribe wants to improve the experience for customers.

“We wanted more floor space, to have people to be able to move around without having to bump into machines and other individuals, so it’s better for the patron, second we wanted to have a higher ceiling for better ventilation,” Casas says.

The new project is estimated to cost up to $300 million. It will be self-financed, Casas says. Traffic is expected to double and the tribe is paying a percentage of more than a dozen road and intersection improvements, some as distant as the northern fringes of Fresno and Clovis. These projects will cost $10 million or more, Casas says.

The tribe has already paid millions widening Friant Road and road design for other projects is in the early stages.

At a recent meeting, nearby residents had a three-hour window to discuss concerns about Table Mountain’s plans. They finished their comments in about 15 minutes. Nearby residents said they are worried about future traffic and thousands of new homes proposed by developers. But they also said the tribe has been a good neighbor.

“Traffic has always been a big concern and so we share that concern,” Casas says.

Gaming experts say Table Mountain is poised to capitalize on the local market. Construction will begin early next year.

Gambling isn’t the only game in town. Near Lemoore, Tachi Palace is three months from opening a family entertainment complex with a theater, arcade, bowling alley and billiards hall.

But it’s the newer casino projects that generally draw patrons.

Kenneth Hansen, a Fresno State political science and American Indian Studies professor, is author of “The New Politics of Indian Gaming.” He says proximity to Fresno gives Table Mountain a leg up.

“For a lot of people it might be convenience,” Hansen says. “In the case of building a hotel at Table Mountain, people might stay there for convenience as opposed to coming in from out of town.”

Out-of-town visitors are usually on highways. Highway 41 passes by Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino for motorists headed toward Yosemite and it will likely remain a popular stop for tourists, Hansen says.

And, new is also in the plans near Porterville, where the Tule River Indian Tribe wants to relocate Eagle Mountain Casino from its out-of-the-way foothill location to the Porterville airport. Tribe officials are hoping for a federal government decision this summer that will allow them to push ahead with their $180 million casino and hotel expansion.

Still, there are other tribes trying to get in the game. Auberry’s Big Sandy Rancheria has an expansion plan that was held up by the federal government, the Tejon tribe has a proposal near Bakersfield and so does North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians along Highway 99, near Madera.

NORTH FORK IN THE CROSSHAIRS

The North Fork project is 36 miles from the tribe’s home and has been in the works almost 15 years. The tribe was slowed by Proposition 48 in 2014. It became the poster child for so-called “off-reservation” gaming. The federal government and Governor Jerry Brown supported the project. Other tribes funded Proposition 48 to stop North Fork, calling it “reservation shopping.”

Today, pending lawsuits are stopping the Highway 99 proposal by North Fork.

The North Fork tribe won a round earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. when judges ruled that the federal Department of the Interior acted within its authority allowing casino land to be taken into trust for the tribe. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible, says Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up California, lead plaintiff in the case.

Schmit says California voters’ passage of Proposition 48, which was a rejection of the gaming compact signed by Governor Brown is a significant piece of evidence that could convince the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

A second Stand Up California case, this one in the California Supreme Court, is yet to be decided, but examines Governor Brown’s ability to approve “off-reservation” gaming. Another Stand Up California case, this one also in process in the California Supreme Court examines Governor Brown’s ability to take state land out of its jurisdiction and use it for an “off-reservation” casino. Schmit says the governor doesn’t have that power.

IF YOU BUILD IT…

With all these proposals, when will the Valley have too much gaming? The Valley already has a slot machine for every 380 residents. In Southern California, the ratio is about one for every 540 residents, about 40% lower. There also are demographic trends to consider.

“The demographic that gambles in California at these places is starting to decline,” says Hansen. “They tend to be older Americans. As the folks that gamble pass and if they’re not replaced by other folks there is no guarantee there is going to be much of a market, so the market share could become more competitive as the market contracts.”

This means the strategy for gaming is changing, both in the types of games offered and the kinds of attractions used to draw crowds.

"There is this trend particularly with millennials to spend a lot of time in casino hotels but not to gamble. To spend time on shopping, and dining and going to the entertainment facilities. This has hit Nevada already. The number of slot machines in Nevada has actually gone down." - I. Nelson Rose

Gaming lawyer I. Nelson Rose, Whittier College law professor emeritus, gaming consultant and publisher of gamblingandthelaw.com, says millennials have driven Nevada casinos to put USB ports at slot machines and change their strategies about both gaming and attracting crowds.

“There is this trend particularly with millennials to spend a lot of time in casino hotels but not to gamble,” Rose says. "To spend time on shopping, and dining and going to the entertainment facilities. This has hit Nevada already. The number of slot machines in Nevada has actually gone down.”

Rose has studied the Fresno market and he thinks local casinos may be ahead of the curve. For now, he says, oversaturation isn’t a problem.

“The casino resorts in the Central Valley, the bigger ones, have figured out that they need to be entertainment centers and places where people can just gather for an evening,” Rose says. “I don’t think they’re going to have trouble making money.”

For Table Mountain, reinvention is not in the cards. Casas says the tribe wants to continue to keep the crowd that comes now. Along those lines, he says, the casino also will continue its rule of not serving alcoholic beverages even after the expansion.

“Our goal was really to service our current client base, there will be more people coming just to look,” Casas says. “We don’t plan to make it too extravagant so we scare our customers away. We want to make sure our customers feel comfortable and welcomed.”

And, long-time visitor Desiree Uzzell approves: “The hotel would be a great idea. I think it would be great for the community; I think it would be great for jobs. A new casino would be nice just for the smoke aspect of it because in the old casino right now it can get pretty smoky in there.”