Tribal Casinos Celebrate 10 Years At Play
Ten years ago, four North County American Indian tribes opened the doors to their casinos, hoping for a brighter future for their members.
The operations have flourished, bringing the Pala, Pauma, Rincon and San Pasqual tribes increased revenue to care for their members, provide better services in their communities and jobs for thousands of people.
But the success has come at a cost, and not all tribes have reached the same level of prosperity.
Bitter internal feuds have intensified, the growth of the operations has led to clashes with neighbors, and there are signs that fast cash may have aggravated other problems, such as substance abuse in Indian communities.
The four North County tribes were among dozens of tribal governments that opened casinos across the state after gambling on Indian communities was legalized in 2000.
In January 2001, Rincon, near Valley Center, opened its casino, temporarily housed in a refurbished bingo hall. The 600-member tribe now has a large hotel and casino resort with its partners, Las Vegas-based Harrah's Entertainment.
Rincon Chairman Bo Mazzetti said the casino has allowed the tribe to become self-sufficient and less dependent on the federal government.
"I think its one of the greatest economic opportunities that we have ever had available to us," Mazzetti said.
In April 2001, Pala, east of Fallbrook, opened its casino, a full-fledged Las Vegas-style operation with 2,000 slot machines.
San Pasqual, about 10 miles north of Escondido, opened its operation in April 2001, a midsized casino with 750 slot machines.
A month later, the 200-member Pauma tribe opened a 850-slot casino in a metal-frame tent in Pauma Valley.
Some tribes in the area had opened their casinos earlier, such as Pechanga, whose casino began operating just south of Temecula city limits in 1995. Others opened later; the Santa Ysabel tribe's casino opened near Julian in April 2007.
On a recent afternoon, Pala Chairman Robert Smith toured his reservation in his SUV and reflected on the 10 years since the tribe's casino opened.
"The casino's success has meant financial stability for the tribe, the ability to build our own homes with our own money, better education for our children, and our elders are taken care of," Smith said.
The tribe has built a state-of-the-art fire department and a learning center, which includes a preschool, a library and computer lab. It also builds about 20 homes a year for tribal families; the mortgages are paid for through monthly casino stipends given to individual tribal members.
The Pala Casino Resort and Spa is arguably the most successful casino in North County. Located six miles east of Interstate 15 between Escondido and Temecula, the operation includes a 507-room hotel, 10 restaurants and 40,000 square feet of meeting and convention space.
The mega-gambling complex is a stark contrast to those of other North County tribes, such as Los Coyotes, whose reservation is in a remote area east of Warner Springs. Many members of the Los Coyotes tribe live in dire poverty, much the same way they did 10 years ago.
Leaders of the tribe said the reservation was far too remote to attract enough customers and sought instead to build a casino 115 miles away, near Barstow, hoping to capture some of the gamblers headed to Las Vegas. That project was dashed three years ago when the federal government refused to grant permission.
Nevertheless, the tribe has benefited from Indian gaming. Los Coyotes and other tribes with no casino each get $1.1 million from gambling tribes as part of the agreement struck between tribes and the state.
The tribe uses part of its money as a way to fund its police department.
Tribal leaders say the region has benefited from their casinos.
Immediately after the casinos were announced in 2000, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors worried they would cause traffic problems on local roads, increase crime in nearby communities and drain customers from other entertainment businesses, such as restaurants and movie theaters.
Supervisor Bill Horn, whose North County district includes the four casinos, said the tribes have worked with the county to address some of those problems. Tribes have contributed millions of dollars to help improve roads and pay for increased security and fire protection services.
"The voters enabled the tribes to have gaming," Horn said. "Although the measure did not take into account the full impacts to surrounding communities, we've worked with the tribes to build good relationships. We appreciate tribal contributions to road improvements and fire safety, and we have achieved great success by working together."
Moreover, the casinos employ about 7,000 people, said Bill Bembenek, Pala Casino's chief executive officer.
The tribal gambling industry, which includes 60 casinos statewide, generated $6.9 billion in 2009, according to the annual Indian Gaming Industry Report compiled by economist Alan Meister from private and public sources.
Casinos are not required to release individual revenue figures. They report financial data to the National Indian Gaming Commission, which oversees the tribal gambling industry.
The revenue that casinos generate has allowed local tribes to improve the lives of many people on their reservations. The Rincon, Pala, San Pasqual and Pauma tribes reportedly give their members thousands of dollars a month in casino revenue stipends, also known as "per capita" payments.
Official amounts of per capita payments are not released to the public. The amounts vary, according to various sources, from $3,500 a month to more than $20,000 a month. The amounts can also fluctuate, depending on how much the casinos make in a particular quarter or year.
The payments have made some tribal members' lives very comfortable. In other cases, the money has led to excesses, such as problem gambling, and aggravated other issues, such as drug and alcohol addiction.
There are no studies that address the extent of the problem, but some tribal leaders acknowledge it exists.
Some children are losing interest in school and work, in part because they know that when they turn 18, they will get their per capita payments, tribal leaders say.
"It's their mentality," Pala Treasurer Theresa Nieto said. "That's the toughest part ---- getting our youth to understand."
The 1,100-member tribe pays tuition for tribal members who want to attend college, but only 14 people were taking advantage of the benefit this year, Smith said.
At San Pasqual, casino wealth was blamed for another problem gaining notoriety: family disenrollment. About 60 people in the 300-member San Pasqual tribe were officially expelled in February after a years-long battle over their true heritage.
The members of the Alto family are the descendants of Marcus Alto Sr., who died in 1988, and whose lineage was questioned in a challenge filed by another tribal member, Ron Mast, in August 2007. Mast said in the challenge that Marcus Alto Sr. was adopted by a San Pasqual family but was not their biological son.
In February, the federal government decided that the Altos did not belong in the tribe, and they were disenrolled.
San Pasqual officials have declined to comment on the matter.
Officials who oversee the tribe's gambling operation, Valley View Casino, say the casino has improved people's lives.
"The tribe in general has benefited tremendously," said Joe Navarro, president of the San Pasqual Casino Development Group.
San Pasqual provides housing and scholarship assistance for its people, Navarro said. The casino has also helped fund a fire department, tribal security and after-school programs, he said.
Valley View Casino has grown steadily since 2001 from a modest operation into one that includes a 12-story, 161-room hotel, several restaurants, an outdoor concert venue, a 1,200-space parking garage and 2,000 slot machines.
Until 2007, the sky seemed to be the limit for local casinos. But the gambling industry hit the rocks along with the nation's economy.
The Pauma tribe planned to build a $300 million casino and hotel with the help of its partners, the Mashantucket Pequots' Foxwoods Development Co. The project would include a casino with up to 2,500 slot machines and a 23-story hotel.
But the project fell victim to the economy. In 2008, Pauma's project developer declared the project "not feasible" and canceled funding for it. The Connecticut tribe said it was unable to get the project financed because of the recession.
Pauma's tribal leaders did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The economy also slowed Pala's plans to increase the number of slot machines at its casino. The tribe cut the number of slot machines from 2,400 to 2,000.
Bembenek, Pala Casino's chief executive officer, said the casino has done well despite the recession, keeping the same level of employees, and is well-prepared for the future as the economy recovers.
After their first 10 years in gaming, tribal leaders say they see a bright future for their communities.
Contemplating the view from a hill overlooking the Pala Indian Reservation, Nieto, the tribe's treasurer, said there is no other place she would rather be.
"I think Pala is heaven. I love it," she said. "I think it's a beautiful place to live."