One way or another, western Contra Costa County is the new hot spot for casinos. If the Governor’s proposed pacts with five tribes are upheld by the state legislature, the tiny city of San Pablo could become home to a Las Vegas-scale casino. The Lytton Band of Pomos now operates a card room on a nine-acre site next to Wildcat Creek, but the revamped casino—scaled down after Democratic legislators raised a ruckus about the original proposed 600,000-square-foot building—would still quadruple the size of the existing room.
If the casino expansion is approved, the Lytton Band could receive exclusive rights to gambling machines within 35 miles of San Pablo, potentially ruining plans for two—or even three—more casinos in the city of Richmond, plans that had city planners and councilmembers seeing triple sevens. One casino, operated by the Scotts Valley band of Pomos, is slated for North Richmond while the other is proposed for the former Navy base at Point Molate, to be run by the Guidiville band of Pomos. Critics like Assemblymember Loni Hancock question whether crime-ridden North Richmond is a good site for a casino, while others argue that gambling will bring jobs and boost the local economy. The Point Molate casino faces opposition from the Ione Band of Miwoks, who claim the site as their ancestral territory. Environmental groups are worried that a casino will destroy open space and prevent public bay-side access.
Chevron, which operates a refinery just north of Point Molate, recently offered Richmond $34 million in cash for the property, citing concerns about “homeland security” and making promises to preserve open space. Chevron says it would turn over the land to—or negotiate an easement with—the East Bay Regional Parks District. The oil company wants the property so badly it filed a temporary restraining order to keep Richmond from signing final agreements with the tribe and Emeryville developer Jim Levine, who says his casino/conference center would bring $10 million a year in tribal fees paid to the city in lieu of taxes. Despite Chevron’s lawsuit and uncertainty about the San Pablo casino, the Richmond City Council recently voted to pursue the Point Molate casino. And in early September, rumors began to circulate that Mills Corporation—which owns half of Richmond’s Hilltop Mall— is seeking a tribe with whom to partner for a casino there.
The Sierra Club has not taken an official position on the Point Molate casino, fearing that many residents may support it. Yet Jonna Papaefthimiou, San Francisco Bay Chapter Conservation Manager, says her “gut reaction is that a casino is not a good idea.” Papaefthimiou says the city needs to explore all options for the site, including Chevron’s proposal. She worries that Richmond, in a serious financial crisis, will make a rash decision. “This is the biggest piece of undeveloped property left in Richmond and it’s on the shorefront,” she says. “This is the most valuable thing they have to sell.”