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Public Weighs in on Point Molate $1.2 billion
Casino Proposal in Richmond, California

By John Simerman, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 13, 2009--RICHMOND -- Praise for thousands of promised new jobs outpaced warnings of an economic and social drain Wednesday night as residents aired their views on a massive Indian casino resort and convention center proposed for the Richmond waterfront.

The public hearing, the first of two over the draft environmental review for the project, drew a crowd of more than 200 to the Richmond Memorial Auditorium. Most backed a $1.2 billion project that promises to employ thousands of construction workers and 12,000 mostly entry-level employees if it opens.

The Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians and developer Upstream Point Molate LLC hope to build a major resort at the old Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot just north of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

Should the tribe win federal approval -- a big if, given the stiff political winds in Washington for tribes seeking new land for casinos -- they expect 20,000 people a day to come by car, bus and ferry to gamble, shop, eat and see shows. The plan also calls for two hotels totaling 1,075 rooms, a conference center, parks, trails and tribal facilities.

The tribe and developer have pledged to give Richmond residents a hunk of the work -- a commitment that resonated with many in the crowd Wednesday night.

"It's 17,000 jobs. That's 17,000 ways I can support my family without having to go to jail or kill someone," said Michael Robinson, 27, who said he is a lifelong Richmond resident,

a youth minister and a part-time employee on behalf of the developers.

"This ain't just a casino. It's a concert hall, it's shops, it's a resort. It's a whole new financial district."

Like Robinson, other supporters downplayed the 124,000 square feet of casino space built into the project. But the casino is the economic engine driving the project, and opponents argued that it would mean more crime, gambling addiction and other problems, and would suck money from the local economy.

"The allure of jobs in this economic depression is hard to resist. People are desperate. But in the long run we know casino-based economies are devastating to communities, argued Karen Franklin, president of the Richmond Panhandle Neighborhood Association.

"The victims for the most part are the people closest to the casino, and poor and minority communities."

Franklin, who counted herself discouraged, said she favors holding out for a better project on the former naval depot land. Others hope to keep the land for trails, open space and an interpretive center around the crumbling historic buildings there.

Opponents have formed a group, Coalition to Save Pt. Molate, that receives funding from local card clubs in Emeryville and Pacheco, organizers said.

The group brought in gaming authority William Thompson, a University of Nevada Las Vegas professor, who calculated that the Bay Area economy would lose $121 million a year from money leaving the area via casino losses. New crime and a rise in pathological gambling and other social ills would add $200 million in costs, he said.

"The trouble is you can come every day. It's too close," said Thompson. "The money won't stay here."

Supporters dismissed those concerns, arguing that addicted gamblers will feed their fix somewhere, and that fears of a rise in crime are overblown.

The four-volume draft environmental report carries a long list of impacts, from soil erosion to air quality, and a host of mitigation measures. It assesses five different alternatives for the site -- including three with a casino -- and one option to do nothing with the land.

Among the most challenging environmental concerns is how to get vehicles into the proposed resort without further stalling traffic to the bridge. Other impacts include changes to buildings that make up the Winehaven National Historic District, which was home to a flourishing winery in the early 1900s.

Large modern buildings would be added that would detract from the character of the district because of their sheer size, the report added.

Notably, few environmentalists appeared for the hearing. That may be because Citizens for East Shore Parks, which earlier this year sued the city, developer and the tribe over the early transfer of land from the Navy, is now in settlement talks with the developer.

Greg Feere, CEO of the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, called the project "one of the most well-planned, well-organized projects that I've ever seen in Contra Costa County." Feere said the union is in talks with the developer on an agreement to secure jobs for the project.

"If you look at the construction industry right now, we are suffering," he said. "This is the largest economic stimulus package for jobs in the Bay Area."

The hearings are one step in an arduous federal process for the tribe and developer. Before the resort could move forward, the Department of Interior must approve it as "restored lands" for the tribe and take it into federal trust.

The tribe would then need to reach an agreement with the governor on a gaming compact.

The next hearing on the draft environmental document is Sept. 17 at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium.

The report is available online at www.pointmolateeis-eir.com and at the Richmond Main Library, 325 Civic Center Plaza, and at City Hall, 450 Civic Center Plaza.

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To see more of the Contra Costa Times, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.contracostatimes.com/.

Copyright (c) 2009, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.

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