Casino gambles on Los Banos

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The California Valley Miwok tribe is already in discussions with
local officials in Los Banos, where casino Project Manager Gary
Ramos said the tribe’s investors had been looking even before
announcing plans to scrap a hotel and casino near Hollister.
Hollister – The California Valley Miwok tribe is already in discussions with local officials in Los Banos, where casino Project Manager Gary Ramos said the tribe’s investors had been looking even before announcing plans to scrap a hotel and casino near Hollister.

In a press release issued Thursday, Ramos said the tribe felt unwelcome in San Benito County due to the board of supervisors’ willingness to “take any action, ethical or not” to keep the casino out. Instead, Ramos said, they’d be looking for a more friendly and welcoming environment. And he said Friday Los Banos is one location that might fit the bill.

“Yes, they have come and talked to us,” said Los Banos Mayor Michael Amabile Friday. “They met with us twice, once quite a few months ago. But I know they’re looking at other communities too. We’re in a little bit different situation over here. We have a very high unemployment rate; jobs are very important over here. Not that they aren’t important everywhere, but personally I do think Los Banos might be a little more receptive.”

Ramos’ complaints about the hostility towards the project stem from the county board of supervisors’ February resolution opposing the casino, which he believes was approved prematurely and without all the facts.

“In all my years in this business, this is probably the most unorthodox situation with trying to deal with a government body that I’ve ever encountered,” Ramos said Friday. “I don’t see why anybody would want to come into San Benito and do anything. It’s just too difficult. It’s just too frustrating and too expensive. We kind of saw the handwriting on the wall quite early.”

Ramos said Thursday the tribe and its investors from Game Won had originally come to San Benito County at the behest of the state. The tribe and its investors began looking at Los Banos almost a year ago, along with two other locations they’re still pursuing, he added.

Ramos wouldn’t say what the two other potential locations for the casino were, but did say the tribe is looking at one of the two at the behest of the state. He said Thursday that “Sacramento” had originally suggested the tribe try looking at San Benito County because of its high unemployment rate. A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Friday he couldn’t confirm whether or not the governor’s office had actually made that recommendation and did not know if it had made any further suggestions to the tribe.

“I can say that the state has not entered into negotiations with this particular tribe, nor will they because they don’t have gaming-eligible land,” he said. “But I can say that certainly the governor believes that local communities always should be supportive when tribes are seeking gaming compacts with the state.”

But even though the five-member Miwok tribe has moved on, the County Board of Supervisors will still be keeping tabs on them and where they head next, staying aware of other landless tribes that might come knocking on San Benito County’s door and keeping themselves up-to-speed on any new Indian gaming regulations from Sacramento.

“At this point I feel strongly that San Benito County is not ready for Indian gaming, but I’m also aware of the fact that we most likely will be given a proposal by another outside source at some other point in time. With Indian gaming gaining popularity and so many tribes vying for recognition, it’s inevitable that we will be approached for having Indian gaming in San Benito County,” said Supervisor Don Marcus. “We need to be aware of what’s going on in surrounding areas also so we can hopefully continue to keep the Central Coast of California in a position that’s beneficial for all the people and for our children.”

If the casino does end up somewhere close-by, such as Los Banos, San Benito County would still be hit with some of the impacts, several officials warned.

“I worry about Highway 152 and the citizens that drive that on a regular basis,” said Sheriff Curtis Hill. “We’ve got an intersection at 152 and 156 that’s already one of the most dangerous, and (if the casino stays nearby) there will be some traffic impacts for us. If folks are going to go to Los Banos and are coming out of the Monterey Bay area, they’ll have to come through here.”

Still, Supervisor Pat Loe said, “I think that would be much less of an impact than if we had the casino here.”

Casino supporter Carlos Vargas said Friday he was “disappointed, but not mad” that the prospect of a casino had left town along with its promise of thousands of jobs.

Ramos had offered 2,000 union-wage jobs with benefits if San Benito County accepted the proposal for a casino, which could have been similar in size Yolo County’s 66,000 square foot, 2,000 slot machine Cache Creek casino. He also promised $200 million in revenue and benefits like infrastructure improvements for the community.

“I thought it was going to be good for our community to provide jobs that we really need in town,” said Vargas. “Hopefully now (the supervisors) won’t say ‘forget about this project, let’s get on with our lives.’ They have to do something for the people in this town, and they told me they’re going to be working on new projects. If a new project comes to town, they’re going to take it seriously because they know that we need those jobs.”

Local leaders said Friday they were well aware of the need for jobs in San Benito County, and see the past nine months of divisive casino debate as a reminder of how great that need is.

“This tells the community that we need to get involved in our leadership to get job creation, otherwise another casino is going to come in,” Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz said Thursday. “If nobody starts moving on this (job creation), in another year or two we’re going to have another proposal.”

Sheriff Hill agreed.

“I think that the county needs to be aware of what the real message was from this process,” said Hill, who had been one of the community’s most vocal casino opponents, and the first county official to come out against the project. “We’ve got to get jobs – good, solid, clean jobs – into this county. It’s imperative for a whole host of reasons, but I think that that was the real benefit of this process. That came out loud and clear.”

After the announcement the tribe and its investors would be looking elsewhere Thursday, Ramos said he also hopes San Benito County can find another way to pull in jobs and revenue.

“It was unfortunate because it was one of the hardest things for us to do to tell the people of Hollister that they were losing those jobs and that money,” Ramos said. “I hope CRAPS (Casinos Represent A Poor Solution) makes good on their promise to work on bringing in more jobs.”

CRAPS Chairman Steve Merrell said Friday this would indeed be a major focus for the grassroots organization.

“Many in the group are interested in looking for answers in the community,” Merrell said.

Jessica Quandt covers politics for the Free Lance. Reach her at 831-637-5566 ext. 330 or at [email protected]

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