|By Rebecca Rosen Lum, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 30, 2004 - In a month, Richmond officials expect to sell Point Molate to a developer who plans a high-end hotel/casino complex on the picturesque former winery and naval fuel depot, City Hall and developer sources said.
Upstream Development, LLC, in partnership with a Las Vegas investor and a federally recognized Indian tribe, is drawing up designs for a $700 million "upscale resort destination," including a 1,100- room hotel, a performance venue for major music acts, 15 restaurants and a tony mall, said Upstream principal Jim Levine.
Neither Levine nor city officials would disclose the terms of a sale, which are being negotiated, nor the tribe involved.
Once a Navy fuel depot that gassed up the entire Pacific Fleet during World War II, the stunning waterfront parcel pocked with military waste is now home to egrets, blue heron and monarch butterflies that roost in eucalyptus trees. A 464-foot ridgetop offers spectacular views of the Bay and the rippled blue profile of three counties beyond.
The site's future has been the source of vigorous public debate since Richmond took ownership of the 285-acre parcel last September.
The proposed resort's engine would be a casino in the restored red-brick Winehaven winery building. The castle-like structure, which churned out some 15 million bottles of wine annually until Prohibition, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The development group has won favor with environmental groups by agreeing to complete the section of Bay Trail that runs through the land, and restore a 150-acre open space preserve.
Upstream plans to widen the two-lane road leading to Point Molate from near the eastern end of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and take responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination left over from its days as a U.S. Navy fuel depot.
Many of concerns residents raised over a casino at the Port of Richmond, including lights, traffic and noise, would evaporate with the complex based on the relatively isolated Point Molate, said Don Gosney, chair of the restoration committee charged with overseeing the conversion of Point Molate to civilian uses.
"Who's there to see the lights?" he said.
However, Upstream is getting flak from ChevronTexaco, whose refinery borders Point Molate.
The company says the land should be used for active industry or kept vacant and inaccessible to the public for security purposes.
"Some individuals appear to believe that our company has agreed that a casino and hotel complex at Point Molate is compatible with the long term safe and secure operation of the refinery," says Dean O'Hair, the manager of external affairs, in a July 26 letter to Mayor Irma Anderson. "That is certainly not the case."
"Chevron's initial reaction is to say they don't want anything," Levine said. "But we've consulted experts who say their security concerns are solvable."
Critics eager to call the company's bluff point to the unguarded roads around the Chevron Richmond refinery, porous fences on its borders and quick access from the shoreline.
A letter from the FBI to the city said the agency has no reason to believe development at Point Molate would make ChevronTexaco more vulnerable to terrorism.
Three separate groups are in various stages of developing Indian casinos in West County only a few miles from each other.
The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians is planning to add slot machines to its Casino San Pablo card room, and the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians is angling for a 225,000-square-foot gaming complex on its 30-acre property in North Richmond.
"The market is big enough for that," Levine said. "There will be some natural differentiation of the clientele. Ours is quite upscale."
Levine said he believes the project can be completed within two years.
"They have several obstacles to overcome," said Assistant City Manager Rich McCoy. "I wouldn't bet against (the timeline), but it's awful optimistic."
First, the tribe must get the land into federal trust. Construction is expected to take 12 months. After the governor issues a compact to the tribe, they have eight or nine months before they can plug in slot machines, McCoy said.
"If this project goes ahead as planned, it could be a real win-win," Gosney said.
"Upstream will write a sizeable check to a city that's looking behind the couch cushions for money. The city should be able to hire back all its employees. I would not be surprised if they had a police substation out there, and the Point Richmond fire station would be enlarged and have its hours fully restored."
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