On Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior took 36 acres into trust that the Wilton Rancheria had purchased from Howard Hughes Corp. in order to build a casino in Elk Grove, California. In an announcement Tuesday the tribe said that they are now entitled to build a casino on sovereign tribal ground.
The tribe’s path to success may not be so simple as Elk Grove earlier forged an agreement with the property developer of the mall adjacent to the land on the southern edge of town, and then rescinded the amendment. The 100-acre site is slated for a shopping mall with the casino expected to drive the economic engine of the development.
A news conference was held at the site Tuesday with about 100 members of the tribe in attendance. Tribal Chairman Raymond Hitchcock said during the media event that “After six decades of being landless … we now have a home,” according to a report in the Sacramento Bee.
The tribes path to self-determination has been fraught with obstacles after being disbanded by the federal government in 1959. The tribe’s 700 members were again officially recognized in 2009. In January the tribe, along with its gaming partner, Boyd Gaming, purchased the land for $1 million per acre at the half-built shopping mall under development by Hughes Corp. Construction stopped on the development with the recession and Hughes Corp. announced they would build an outlet mall there in 2014 and maintain a casino is needed to drive traffic to the outlying area.
A special interest group with ties to commercial card rooms in the area has funded information campaigns against the project. They also gathered enough signatures from opponents to force city leaders to put their agreement with Hughes Corp. to a vote. Rather than undergo the expense of a referendum the city decided to rescind the agreement. Some legal experts say that the action could still sully the tribe’s efforts due to a potentially murky title to the land.
According to the SacBee, the California Department of Justice sent a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on January 10 stating that the “development agreement has not been amended, and its restrictions currently encumber the property.”
Even with legally clear title the tribe will still need to negotiate gambling compact with Gov. Jerry Brown and have it ratified by the legislature before gaming can begin.
As planned the casino, hotel, and convention center would cost about $400 million to construct and employ some 2,000 people. If all goes well it should be operational within 3-5 years. Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming operates 25 casinos in seven states and are financing the project. Wilton Rancheria would repay the land and construction costs out of casino profits.
The tribe has agreed to provide the city with $132 million over two decades for infrastructure, public safety, education, and non-profit groups in lieu of taxes which cannot be levied on sovereign tribal land.