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New tribal casino planned for the outskirts of Chico

HIGH TENSION This 650-acre site that sits halfway between Chico and Oroville, at the junction of Highways 99 and 149, is about to become home to a new tribal casino.

HIGH TENSION This 650-acre site that sits halfway between Chico and Oroville, at the junction of Highways 99 and 149, is about to become home to a new tribal casino.

Photo By Tom Angel

Green casino? Mechoopda tribal chairman Steve Santos (pictured above) said the design of the casino at Highways 149 and 99 will allow the building to blend in with the pastoral landscape of the site. Local environmentalists, however, have expressed concerns that development on the 650-acre site may encourage sprawl. The area is also thought to be a prime recharge area for the Tuscan aquifer. The project will be reviewed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Two years ago, Oroville’s Gold Country Casino operated out of an enormous white tent in the middle of a sloped gravel parking lot. Today, the old weathered tent is just a pathetic-looking annex to a sparkling stucco monolith that now houses an 87-room hotel, a Vegas-style gambling arena complete with hundreds of video slot and poker machines and 15 or so gaming tables, plus an upper floor with two restaurants, a bar, gift shop and cafà. The parking lot is still mostly gravel, and the enormous glass doors at the entrance are not quite hung yet, but the casino’s patrons don’t seem to mind or even notice.

They have come to spend an afternoon, to escape their cares, maybe even to win some money.

The minimum age on the cavernous new gaming floor is 18, but most of the patrons, particularly the white-haired women in pantsuits making up the senior-day-care crowd, look about three times that age. Many of them carry casino-issued credit cards on telephone-style-cords clipped to their blouses so that, when they insert the cards into their corresponding orifices on video slots, it looks as though they are tethered to the machine—a cash umbilical that keeps the reels spinning until the credit counter reads “0.”

Aside from the seniors, there are construction worker types; small, dirty men with mustaches whose Napoleonic swaggers are meant to mask inebriated states; serious-looking Asian men who talk to themselves while picking Keno numbers; working-class folks of all colors and creeds; honeymooners; businesspeople; tourists; gigolos and gold diggers on the make; administrative assistants on overextended lunch breaks—in other words, anyone and everyone you can think of is in this obscure Indian casino stuffing coins, bills and plastic cards into mechanized games of chance.

Even though people have gambled since prehistoric times, the scene at this casino—which is played out exactly the same way at the four other casinos within easy driving distance of Chico—seems profoundly modern. Nearly every player, whether he came with a group or on his own, sits alone in front of a video screen, pressing buttons that tell the machine’s computer how many credits to bet and how many pay lines to calculate.

The result of each bet is determined as soon as the button is pressed, but still the virtual reels spin tantalizingly into position so as to heighten the sense of anticipation. Three lobsters and a sea slug, you win; two bottles of Tabasco sauce, you lose. An elderly man in white shoes and a Panama hat rises slowly from his stool and wanders off, wallet in hand, in search of an ATM machine.

Every second of every day, you can find thousands of people gambling at one of the nation’s estimated 700 casinos, 44 of which are operated by Indian tribes in California. Within a year or so, Chico will have its own Indian casino, located at the junction of Highways 99 and 149, just eight miles from the city limits. There is almost no doubt that it will benefit its owners, the 420 members of the Mechoopda tribe, as well as their Las Vegas-based partners, Station Casinos.

Nobody in the county (nobody who matters, that is) has gone on record as being opposed to a casino being built on the outskirts of town, and most local politicians seem to support the idea, which is a good thing for everyone because even if the project were opposed, there isn’t a thing anybody could do to stop it from being built.

That’s because the Mechoopda, like every other federally recognized tribe in America, are a sovereign nation, with its own system of governance and its own constitution. Since 1996, when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribal casinos have been popping up like grass fires on a dry prairie. Last year, Americans spent more than $50 billion at gaming parlors, with about $18.5 billion spent in tribal casinos, which typically boast revenue growth of some 14 percent a year.

There are a lot of positive things that have come out of Indian gaming, like jobs, economic self-determination for a historically oppressed people, contributions to state tax rolls and tourism development for cash-strapped regions across the country. But there are social costs too, for both the winners and losers in casinoland.

There are no finalized plans for the $80 million facility, but it is expected to offer 500 video slot machines, 10 gaming tables and most likely a lounge and restaurant. The minimum gambling age will be 21, and more than 400 employees will oversee its operation. Under a contract with Station Casinos, the tribe will keep 76 percent of the profits for the first five years of the casino’s operation in exchange for the company’s expertise in running so-called locals-market casinos, which last year garnered Stations close to a cool billion in revenue.

Steve Santos, chairman of the Mechoopda’s tribal government, said he’s determined to put together a project that will lift many of his tribe out of poverty and also benefit the larger community of Chico.

IN THE PINK The pink area shows the boundary of the land granted to the Mechoopda and other local tribes by the treaty they signed with the U.S. government in 1851. The proposed casino is near the junction of Highways 99 and 149.

Photo By Tom Angel

“The community in general and government officials in this area are very much aware of our intentions because we stated from the very beginning it was our intent to put that gaming facility on those lands,” he said. “So we actually have been working cooperatively with local government officials throughout this process.”

Some might say the tribe is betting its future on the viability of its casino, but Santos doesn’t see it exactly that way.

“Right now it’s an opportunity that’s legally entitled for Indian tribes—we don’t know how long that window’s going to stay open,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of changes are going to occur in the state of California. So at this point in time it really makes sense for us to try to obtain this as a revenue stream to help the tribe become self-determined.”

To get a sense of just how important this project has become for the Mechoopda, one need only look at the tribe’s unique and complex history in the region.

At a recent panel discussion held at CSU, Chico’s Harlen Adams Theatre Santos and a group of tribal elders talked to a small audience about that history, its roots in the community and its struggles to be recognized by the federal government.

The story of the tribe is one of pride, pain and, to a large extent, subservience to the invading hordes of white people who first trickled, then streamed into the area in the mid-19th century.

When the first foreigners, a detachment of Mexican soldiers who surveyed the region in 1821, arrived in the area surrounding what is now Colusa, they found an extensive network of dirt roads leading to several large villages, some of them housing a thousand or more native people. Trade apparently flourished among those settlements, with inhabitants gathering the abundant fish and acorns during the temperate months and in the winter dancing and praying in gratitude for those life-sustaining gifts.

But subsequent journeys by fur trappers and white explorers brought with them a wave of death in the form of malaria and smallpox, which wiped out perhaps 80 percent of Northern California’s native population. By the 1840s, only small, subsistence-type villages remained. One white explorer at the time wrote in his journal that when he sought out those once-prosperous people, he found only the bones and skulls of dead Indians littering the empty and abandoned sites of former villages.

Although an 1851 treaty had granted a group of local tribes, of which the Mechoopda were a part, a reservation some 800 miles square, the state government predictably reneged on the agreement, leaving the tribe homeless on their own land.

Enter John Bidwell, who founded the city of Chico, and his wife Annie. They offered the Mechoopda a degree of peace and security that was not shared by the rest of the region’s tribes.

“There was a symbiotic relationship with the Bidwells and our tribe,” Santos said. “The Indians provided a labor force, and Bidwell provided protection for the tribe.”

But the relationship was also something of a devil’s bargain. While John Bidwell was content to let the Mechoopda practice their own religion and keep their cultural traditions, his wife Annie insisted the Indians give up their “heathen” ways and convert to Christianity. Seeing other tribes hunted, harassed and driven to the hills by Gold Rush-era settlers, the Mechoopda voluntarily gave up many of their ancient practices and settled into a village on the Bidwells’ property, working the fields and orchards in exchange for protection and sanctuary from the sometimes violently anti-Indian community surrounding them.

“People sometimes ask me what’s my Indian name,” Santos said at the panel discussion. “Well, my name’s Steve. [Tribal members in the Bidwell days] gave up their Indian names, and they lost many of the native skills.”

Some of the tribe’s culture was kept alive by members who performed some of the old dance ceremonies—originally conceived as a form of prayer—to entertain curious settlers. If not for those performances, many of the traditional dances and garb might have been lost forever. As it is, the Mechoopda have had to rely on archaeological finds, as well as fragments of oral history, to get a picture of what tribal life was like before their ancestral lands were taken from them.

The discussion at Chico State included four or five tribal elders, who shared memories of what it was like to grow up on “the village,” a collection of dirt-floor shacks that were built on the original site where the Bidwells housed their tribal labor force. Although it remained a pocket of poverty up until it was sold off in the late-'60s, tribal elders said the warmth of community life often made up for their lack of material wealth.

“Nobody realized we were poor at the time,” one elder said. “It was just how we lived. There was a lot of caring in the community, and it wasn’t until we got off the village that we realized we were poor.”

The Mechoopda’s days on the village came to an abrupt end in 1958, when Congress decided that it was high time that Indians somehow assimilated themselves into mainstream America. To that end, Congress enacted the California Rancheria Act, which terminated federal recognition of 44 California Indian tribes, the Mechoopda among them. Termination meant that, as far as the government was concerned, tribes that had been in existence for perhaps thousands of years simply ceased to be. That led to a loss of government benefits and, at least for the Mechoopda, a loss of the Chico Rancheria that had been the tribe’s home since the Bidwell days.

“At the time of the termination, the individual families were responsible for bringing their houses up to code,” Santos said. “A lot of the families couldn’t afford it. In addition, it is my understanding there were land speculators that were waiting for this to happen. As soon as it occurred they were waiting with money in hand to buy those parcels.”

The tribe, thus dispossessed and tossed to the winds, still managed to stay a somewhat cohesive unit, and in 1992, after suing the U.S. government, it regained its tribal status. While that eventually got the tribe back on its feet and set up the opportunity for the Mechoopda to go into the gaming business, decades of poverty and disenfranchisement have taken their toll.

“I really would like to see this tribe be self-sufficient and not dependent on government funding,” Santos said, “to have every tribal member who wanted an education to be able to have that education funded 100 percent, [for] every tribal member to have adequate housing, and for every tribal member to have adequate health care.” A casino, he said, is the tribe’s best chance to make that vision a reality.

Santos said he is aware that gaming has potential negative effects on communities too, and not just on those people who can’t control their gambling habits. At least two other local tribes have gone through bitter internal struggles after building casinos over who in the tribe has a right to share in the profits.

Last April, the Concow Maidu, who run Oroville’s Feather Falls Casino, disenrolled 40 members. Approximately 1,500 California Indians have been disenrolled since the advent of tribal gaming, according to the Native American Times.

And then there are the social costs. Far away from the bleeping screens and flashing lights of the Oroville casinos, a small group of people gathers twice a week in the community rec room of a north Chico mobile home park. Here in this wood-paneled chamber, in the fading afternoon, a half-dozen gambling addicts drink coffee and commiserate over a problem they say is just as debilitating as any chemical addiction and twice as hard to shake.

The leader of the group is Lou, an aging private detective with a protrusive gut and teeth that look like he grinds them in his sleep. Lou said he got hooked on playing the ponies years ago, and in the course of filling in the abundant “down time” peculiar to his profession he graduated to full-blown addiction. He started the Chico Gamblers Anonymous chapter about a year and a half ago after noticing that, at another 12-step program he was attending, many of those addicted to alcohol or drugs were having a lot of trouble staying on the program because they simply could not stay away from the casino.

“I kept on hearing people tell these stories, and you know, you’re not supposed to talk about another addiction in that particular group. But some of them are feeling so terrible about what’s happening to them they kind of blurted things out,” he said.

Some of the stories he heard resonated with him personally—stories of people who sought escape in the welcoming atmosphere of a gaming den only to emerge hours later, broke and depressed and with almost no recollection of how they got that way.

“They’ll sometimes stay there for days or all night,” he said. “Some of them commit suicide, some of them steal money to feed their addiction and wind up in prison. With gambling, it’s more of an emotional thing. I’m trying to describe it and just can’t. Most people who’ve been in several 12-step programs—and they’ve done it all, like alcohol, drugs and so forth—they say that gambling is worse than any of them.”

The worst form of gambling, they all agree, are the video slot machines, which some say have actually been designed to elicit addictive behavior. Problem gamblers refer to the machines as the “crack cocaine of gambling,” and some refer to themselves as “slot sluts.”

At the meeting, one middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt and graying ponytail told how he lost his entire inheritance—close to $200,000—in a period of less than a year. His business failed, his family nearly fell apart and he may be in debt the rest of his life. But even now that he has logged over a year without entering a casino, he still feels the urge to gamble.

“I don’t even like to drive to Oroville by myself,” he said. “Somehow if I do it’s like the car drives itself to the casino.”

Other GA members nod their heads in agreement. Lou has the most gambling “sobriety,” at almost two years, while one guy at the meeting has less than a week. I ask them what they think of a new casino going in at a spot that’s less than 10 miles out of town. They all fall silent and look at each other for a moment. One says, “I don’t how I’m going to keep myself out of there.”

The group’s members don’t officially oppose the new casino because they do not allow themselves to take a position on what Lou calls “outside issues.” But among the addicts assembled on this day, there is clearly a sense of dread and antipathy toward the project.

Just as the overwhelming majority of people who drink alcohol are not alcoholics, most folks who gamble are not problem gamblers. Careful bettors can make $20 last all night in a casino, and once in a while someone will even strike it rich. When this happens, the casino sends out a press release, like the one Feather Falls in Oroville sent out recently after a local man won $300,602 on a Wheel of Fortune video slot. “The Oroville resident plans to use his winnings to pay off his mortgage,” the release happily reported.

But problem gamblers point out that the casinos don’t send out press releases when players lose their houses, get divorced or jump off a bridge as a result of their addiction. While only about 10 percent of casino customers have a gambling problem, these unfortunates generate a huge portion of many casinos’ profits.

Those at Gamblers Anonymous also think the local press has become addicted to casino advertising money and thus won’t run any negative stories about gambling. Insiders say casinos will and have pulled advertising from local media anytime they believe a story or editorial is slanted against them. (This paper would probably be four pages shorter every week if not for the full-page ads placed by local gaming tribes.)

News stories are supposed to be based on facts, but studies are inconclusive as to whether casinos are a boon or a bust to local communities. Both sides in the growing fight over tribal gaming throw out impressive statistics and attempt to draw conclusions about whether the jobs and revenue generated by casinos exceed, equal or cancel out their social costs.

The Mechoopda say their project will generate 1,000 living-wage jobs and add some $14 million to the local economy each year, in addition to contributing $120 million to state and (to a lesser degree) local tax rolls. The tribe plans on drafting a memorandum of understanding with Butte County to address any impacts the casino might have on traffic, crime and the natural environment.

Citing Las Vegas’ crime statistics, the Mechoopda assert that casinos do not drive up crime rates. They don’t mention that Nevada’s suicide rate is, for some reason, twice the national average or that it has both the highest high school dropout rate and highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. What any of it has to do with gambling is a matter of speculation.

Using unsourced data, the tribe’s PowerPoint sales pitch states that “despite the expansion of gaming across the country in recent years, the prevalence rate of pathological gambling has remained relatively unchanged.”

But an apparently different study by the National Opinion Research Council found that the number of pathological gamblers roughly doubles within 50 miles of a casino. Yet another study by economists Ernie Goss and Edward Morse, which compared bankruptcy rates in counties that had casinos with rates of those without them, found that “adding a casino in the 1990s increased the county personal bankruptcy rate by 100 percent, but reduced business bankruptcy rates by 35.4 percent on average.”

What does this thicket of data amount to, and, more important, what does it mean for Butte County? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. After all, certain people have always liked to gamble and probably always will. The Mechoopda themselves, along with most other Native American tribes, played gambling games, as did the pioneers who displaced them and the people who live here today.

For those who like to patronize casinos, there will soon be one more venue to choose from. For the people who have a problem with gambling, there will be one more place to try to avoid. And for the Mechoopda, there will be one more chance at a viable future for their people.