Barstow clings to hope for a casino

Jun 5, 2007 5:22 AM

Just like its location on the edge of civilization, Barstow is clinging to hope that it might still have a tribal casino, despite the expiration of a federal deadline for the project.

It was announced last week that an agreement reached between the Big Lagoon Rancheria and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will prolong the life of the compact for more than three months.

Last week marked a deadline for land south of the Barstow Outlets mall to be taken into trust by the federal government, made into reservation land, and deemed eligible for a proposed casino resort involving two California tribes and a Michigan developer.

Virgil Moorehead, chairperson for Big Lagoon, said that he agreed to extend the land into trust deadline with the state until September 17 and keep fighting for a casino in Barstow for a few more months.

"The land into trust isn’t going to happen, we know that," Moorehead said. "We’ve decided to give the state and the legislature more time."

David Miller, a spokesman for compact sponsor State Senator Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, said the extension gives the compact a bit of breathing room. The compact, reintroduced into the legislature by a bill sponsored by Wiggins, currently awaits an informational hearing in the Senate Government Organization Committee. Miller said that hearing might not occur until other casino compacts before the legislature clear the Assembly.

Moorehead, however, is growing weary of the process. After fighting for a casino for the Big Lagoon for nearly six years, the prospect of future delays and extended deadlines frustrates him. Moorehead said the tribe had the option to walk away from the whole project when the land into trust deadline approached but agreed to the extension, making it clear this would be the last.

"If it doesn’t make it by September 17, there’s no deal," he said.

After the September deadline, Moorehead said he would pull the plug on the Barstow project and begin negotiating for a casino on the tribe’s reservation on an environmentally sensitive lagoon in Humboldt County. Government officials and environmental groups across the state do not want to damage the area with a casino and offered land in Barstow as an alternative.

The governor added Big Lagoon to ongoing negotiations with the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians, whose reservation land in rural San Diego County could not support a casino, for an offreservation casino. By law, every Indian tribe in the state is allowed to operate a casino.

Wiggins re-introduced the compact into the legislature in February and it has since sat waiting for a hearing in the Government Organization committee. Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, the chairman of the committee, said he has delayed a hearing on the compact until the completion of the land in trust process.

The process, which normally takes two years, is in its 18th month, said Tom Shields, a spokesman for the casino project. He expects to have a draft of the document, similar to an environmental impact report, ready by the end of summer.