Gritty bay city warms to gambling's glitz

Unlike other Californians, many in San Pablo view mammoth casino as boon

August 29, 2004|By Eric Bailey | Eric Bailey,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN PABLO, Calif. - This gritty little San Francisco Bay Area city ran short on luck decades ago. Industry declined, jobs disappeared, crime and poverty grabbed hold. Tucked innocuously between the cascading traffic of Interstate 80 and the brine of San Francisco Bay, San Pablo slumped into the 21st century.

This week the blue-collar town of 31,000 saw its fortunes turn. In a big way.

Residents learned that a 255-member Indian tribe plans a gargantuan casino - the nation's third-largest - at the front doorstep of San Pablo. With 5,000 slot machines spread over a floor space bigger than a half dozen Home Depots, the gambling palace would be nearly triple the size of the state's largest existing tribal casino. It also marks the deepest potential incursion by tribal gambling into California's urban core.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger concluded a deal recently with the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians for San Pablo's mega-casino, one of five tribal compacts up for possible ratification during the Legislature's final frenzied week. While the state stands to gain 25 percent of the revenue from the casino's slots and game tables, the deal would allow a mammoth metropolitan gambling emporium never before seen in California.

In many cities, such news might be as welcome as a visit by Godzilla. Indian casino proposals regularly spawn hostility around the Golden State, but no big move to organize and oppose has surfaced here.

City officials have embraced the idea, and so have many of San Pablo's underdog denizens. To them, a multistory, neon-bedecked casino represents progress, the prospect of civic renewal and jobs, a dash of hope.

"It's going to be wonderful," said Katie Engler, 83, a longtime resident of a mobile home park not far from the 9.5-acre casino site. "They say it's really going to bring in jobs and revenue to the city. And I kind of like to have the excitement of it. I'm not a great gambler, but I might put a few bucks in there."

Commuters leery

The reviews in neighboring towns aren't nearly so bravura.

Residents in nearby Pinole and Rodeo and El Sobrante and Albany see the prospect of already nasty commutes made impossible by a crush of casino-bound traffic snarling a freeway already considered the Bay Area's most congested. They worry about spin-off crime and other problems, the litany of community concerns typically aired when tribes propose casinos.

"I hate having casinos - period," said Gorden Stone of Pinole, a middle-class commuter town. "They've been sold a numbers game. They want to believe in the worst way it's going to help San Pablo, that they're going to make great money on it, but in the end I don't think they're going to come out ahead."

Some blame George Miller, the Democratic congressman who slipped a few lines into an omnibus bill in 2000 that allowed the Lytton Band, a tiny tribe based 40 miles away in Santa Rosa, to convert the struggling Casino San Pablo card club into tribal property.

Some grumble, too, about Schwarzenegger, who forged the compact that would allow a big and bolder casino squarely in the city even as he voiced opposition to Indian gambling in urban settings.

Miller points the finger at Schwarzenegger for allowing what once appeared a modest project to grow into a behemoth. "This was not at all what was envisioned," said Daniel Weiss, Miller's chief of staff. "It's an enormous facility they're talking about, and he's very concerned whether this is a manageable proposition for that community."

Officials in the Schwarzenegger administration counter that the governor's hand was forced by Miller's legislation and that the San Pablo casino compact was the best deal possible under the circumstances. It could eventually pour up to $180 million annually back into state coffers at a time when the state expects another budget deficit next year. It should also help to halt the proliferation of other big urban casinos, they contend. If ratified by the Legislature and approved by the federal government, the compact would give Lytton a virtual Bay Area gambling monopoly, freezing out several tribes angling to build casinos in the region.

Despite the looming threat, plans remain in the works for two different Indian casinos in Richmond, just south of San Pablo. Meanwhile, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown has talked of casino tribes setting down stakes in that East Bay city. Nearby, the Golden Gate Fields horse race track could add thousands of slot machines if voters approve Proposition 68, a measure put on the November ballot by tracks and card clubs eager to gain equal footing with tribal casinos.

`The monster'

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who represents a swath of the East Bay, worries mostly about the San Pablo casino, which she intends to fight in the Legislature. "It has turned into the monster on the landscape," Hancock said. "No one was prepared for the immense size of this."

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