Casino Deal Divides California Town

Barstow, Calif., went shopping for a Native American tribe to build a casino in hopes of bolstering the city's economy. Now, three tribes are interested — and as Barstow prepares to pick one, the casino project has turned into a high-stakes competition.

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The small City of Barstow, California thought it could get a big economic boost by inviting Native Americans to build a casino and resort, but it never dreamed that that effort would turn into a major rivalry between tribes. It has also divided a city that wants to be known as something more than a highway pit stop.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE reporting:

This is the Interstate 15, it cuts right through the City of Barstow. Sixty-million people drive this road every year between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and the people in Barstow would like some of them to stop in their town for something more than a cheeseburger.

Mr. JOHN RADAR (City of Barstow): As you can see, this is the future home of the Barstow Casinos and Resort.

JAFFE: John Radar is a spokesman for the City of Barstow, gestures to a sign plunked down in a large, empty patch of desert with a few outlet stores and every fast food chain you've ever heard of.

Mr. RADAR: You have to take a look, a little bit about the City of Barstow and where it's been in its past. We've lost several major employers that have left the area, and we have about 35.5 percent of our population on some form of government assistance.

JAFFE: A few years ago, the city though they'd found the perfect economic partner, the Los Coyotes tribe, whose reservation is in a rugged area in northern San Diego County.

Mr. RADAR: They were economically challenged, just like the City of Barstow is. They didn't even get electricity in their community until about five years ago.

JAFFE: The Los Coyotes tribe wanted a casino, but had no success in finding a developer to build one on their reservation, says Tribal Council member Kevin Siva (ph).

Mr. KEVIN SIVA (Los Coyotes Tribal Council member): As soon as they came up there, they were basically apologizing to us, saying, nope, it ain't going to happen here, and then they'd leave.

JAFFE: Because you were too remote?

Mr. SIVA: Exactly.

JAFFE: There are a lot of obstacles to a deal like the one between Barstow and Los Coyotes. Off-reservation Indian casinos are rarely allowed by the federal government. There are none in California. The state would only give its okay to Los Coyotes if the project met some other overwhelming state need. Enter Indian Tribe No. 2 called Big Lagoon.

Mr. VIRGIL MOORHEAD (Big Lagoon Chairman): We are located up in Humboldt County in northern California. We're about 50 miles below the Oregon border, and there only are 18 of us.

JAFFE: Virgil Moorhead, the Big Lagoon chairman, says his tribe wanted to build a casino on their reservation 700 miles north of Barstow, but it's on ecologically sensitive land, and the state wouldn't give them permission. They've been locked in a lawsuit over it for years. So, the price of giving Barstow and the Lost Coyote's Tribe permission for their casino project was that they'd have to give a piece of it to Big Lagoon to make the lawsuit go away.

Mr. MOORHEAD: This is a way to resolve an issue that's been going on for six years, going on seven.

JAFFE: So Barstow, population less than 24,000, appeared likely to have two tribes building two casinos side by side, that's if the projects made it through several more layers of approvals from both the state and federal governments. Then things got really complicated, says Paul Luellig, a member of the Barstow City Council.

Mr. PAUL LUELLIG (Barstow City Council): The tribes that did not get the agreement with us were not happy.

JAFFE: Most unhappy was Indian tribe number 3, the Chemehuevi. They're making plans for their own casino development in Barstow, though they already have one on their reservation 180 miles to the East. And it seems that somebody wanted to make sure that the city would be friendly to their proposal. Luellig, who supported the first casino project, says during the 2004 election, tens of thousands of dollars of what he calls mystery money poured into town.

Mr. LUELLIG: Literally, hundreds and hundreds of signs and campaign mailers attacking certain members of the council and supporting other candidates.

JAFFE: Luellig was one of the candidates being attacked. He won by just 13 votes. Another incumbent was defeated. The money for the attack ads came from a group called Taxpayers for Safer Neighborhoods. They're based in Orange County, about 150 miles away. The accountant listed as the contact for the group did not return several calls from NPR, neither did most other major contributors. Since the election, the newly constituted City Council has cut a second casino with the Chemehuevi. But tribal spokesman Larry Tenney says that agreement had nothing to do with the election and the so-called mystery money.

Mr. LARRY TENNEY (Chemehuevi Tribe): Several on the City Council continue to put fingers suggesting that somehow my clients have some involvement in that, and they did not. So they are just rumors and innuendo that they continue to lodge at us.

JAFFE: Rumors and innuendo are plentiful in Barstow since the prospect of gambling came to town. There is a measure on the June ballot that would outlaw the original casino. There is also a campaign to recall council member Paul Luellig, who now says he's against any casino project of any kind.

Mr. LUELLIG: I mean, it split the community, and it has split this Council. There are some very bitter feelings.

JAFFE: But economically, things are suddenly looking up in Barstow. Home Depot and Wal-Mart are coming to town, and property values are rising fast. It appears that just the possibility of big money gambling has fueled a boom, even though the casinos may not break ground for years, if ever.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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