While the Timbisha Shoshone casino project land trust application works its way through the US Department of the Interior (see the April 11 edition of the Daily Independent), the city of Ridgecrest and the Ridgecrest Area Convention and Visitors Bureau have expressed support for the project — largely because of its anticipated economic boost for the city.
$30 million in 20 years?
City Manager Ron Strand, fresh from his trip to Washington, D.C. where he discussed the project, spoke to the Daily Independent Wednesday morning. Economic projections obtained from developer Nigel White and the tribe estimate the casino will bring in some $30 million in revenue to the city of Ridgecrest over the next 20 years.
Strand said the city has not done its own full economic impact analysis, but he estimates that at full build-out the casino project could bring the city $1 million a year between the MSA agreement and transient occupancy tax from the project's planned hotel.
Strand reiterated that the city supports the project, with three of five city council members voting March 21 to send him to the meeting in Washington DC April 4.
The council also notably declined to send Councilwoman Lindsey Stephens, a longtime casino opponent, to accompany Strand to the meeting with a vote of 2 for 3 against. The city paid for Strand's trip, which he said was the appropriate thing to do.
“In my view, the city entered into a contract with the tribe for a casino. It is appropriate for the city to pay for my trip because council voted for me to go. It sends a better message [than allowing the tribe to pay for the trip],” Strand said.
The Department of the Interior is currently in the process of determining whether the Ridgecrest lands intended for the casino project are in compliance with the language in the tribe's Homeland Act.
If they are, a mandatory land acquisition process can take place. If not, the lands may be acquired in an off-reservation discretionary trust process.
In either case, the National Environmental Protection Act will be required at some point in the development process according to Strand's report from the meeting.
Strand said that the April 4 meeting in D.C. was held largely to allow Associate Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior James Cason to gather information.
“I left with the sense that Cason had the questions he wanted answered,” Strand said. Strand added that it was apparent that Cason was well aware of the casino controversy in Ridgecrest. Cason had received many letters expressing concerns, and provided copies of them to the gaming commission.
The meeting ended with Cason directing DOI staff to continue with the land trust acquisition application. No timeframe was given as to when a decision would be made about the type of land acquisition process to be used.
'Heads in beds’
The RACVB, meanwhile, on Wednesday came out with a strong public statement in support of the casino project.
The RACVB “position paper” states in part, “The Ridgecrest Area Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, as well as the Ridgecrest hotels and motels, believe the addition of a Native American Casino will increase hotel and motel occupancy as reported by numerous sources.” It further states that this “demand generator” is “WELCOMED” [capitals in original text] by the hotel and motel community.
“Ridgecrest has the unique opportunity to become a major travel and tourism stopover/hub with the addition of this Native American Casino development which includes components of NOT ONLY a casino, but also a hotel, large civic event space and restaurant,” it further states.
The paper suggests that the casino will take advantage of its location en route to major California attractions such as Death Valley and Mammoth, as well as the large number of travelers on highways 178, 395 and 14.
It adds that although definitive numbers of visitors cannot be projected, “even a modest increased draw to the City of Ridgecrest is very dynamic for the hotel and motel community and many other businesses locally.” It also speculates that weekend residency could see the biggest boost, which would be significant since hotel and motel weekend use is lower than during the week locally.
The paper also lists benefits of additional anticipated taxes.
The paper notes that because the community holds an annual Petroglyph Festival and features petroglyphic median art, there is a reciprocal responsibility to support the Native American Casino.
“As a community, if we have embraced Petroglyphs as part of our identity, then how can we reject the Native American Casino by the same tribe which the Ridgecrest City Council had voted on and APPROVED the Native American Casino’s development?” it asks. The Ridgecrest City Council approved the municipal services agreement for the casino with the tribe in 2016.
The paper concludes with an official endorsement of the project from the RACVB and Ridgecrest hotels and motels, citing the benefits of tourism and the casino being a “demand generator” for creating tourism and jobs which will in turn benefit local business, restaurants and museums.
The item was introduced at the RACVB meeting April 11 by Director Ghanshyam Popat.
“At the last meeting the board voted to issue a letter of support for casino coming to town with full recognition that it is a controversial issue in the town,” Popat said. “At that time I made it very clear that we are not a political organization, we are not a religious organization — we are a business organization.”
As such, he said, the emphasis is “heads in the bed,” in other words hotel occupancy. Popat said that with 10 percent of hotel dollars going to the city and 3 percent going to RACVB, “if we put heads in the bed it helps the community.”
He added, “we are in full support of the casino coming to town. No hesitation.”
The RACVB also discussed sending a letter to the Ridgecrest City Council and the Kern County Board of Supervisors. Popat said Mayor Peggy Breeden and council have already been apprised of the RACVB's position supporting the casino.