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Tribal casino impact to be assessed

Susan Wood
The main entrance of the Thunder Valley Casino. / Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune file
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It’s been over three years since Las Vegas-based Station Casinos opened Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln, a $215 million project over 49 acres in Placer County that initially prompted shivers from the Reno gaming establishment.

Now Lake Tahoe appears to be in the same boat, as the Miwok tribe prepares to build a casino in Shingle Springs off Highway 50 between Placerville and Sacramento.

The South Lake Tahoe City Council will discuss its policy alternatives at Tuesday’s meeting at 9 a.m. The topic came up with El Dorado County recently opting to drop its lawsuits against the casino in exchange for nearly $200 million to offset the losses over a 20-year period.

Studies had measured the economic losses on Nevada gaming from Thunder Valley to be substantial, with a 15 percent dent in revenues. But many contend other factors have contributed to the losses the Nevada casinos have sustained through the years. In the last six years, the national economic downturn, Bay Area dot-com bust and the 9/11 terrorist attacks have resulted in turbulent times for tourism.

That’s due to a trend even the Nevada casinos have come to recognize. It’s not all about the gaming.

“When all was said and done, my feeling is it does not insatiate the desire for people to have room service, see a show and get away from home. It’s like when we go to San Francisco to get away,” said Steve Trounday, vice president of marketing at Grand Sierra Resort – the former Reno Hilton.

Trounday has found the advantage of his property offering craps and roulette. However, Thunder Valley has a huge benefit to milder weather to attract a player leery of driving in the snow.

The hope is the 200,000-square-foot casino owned by the United Auburn Indian Community will continue to draw day-trippers – especially as tourism leaders at the lake have curbed their marketing efforts toward the destination traveler who will stay longer and spend more.

Nonetheless, Thunder Valley appears to roar ahead with its plans. Spokesman Doug Elmets said the casino operator still plans to eventually build a hotel but not in the near future.

Elmets believes there’s enough interest in gaming to go around. That theory could be a matter of survival.

According to a Reno gaming analyst, 19 Indian casinos are proposed for the Central Valley from Fresno to Redding in the coming years.

It’s a fact of life to players who live near them.

Silvester Garza lives in Fresno close to three Indian casinos. Still, he was visiting Lake Tahoe with his sister, Felisita Garza of Hanford, because he goes where he said he can win. He mainly plays dollar slots and likes the selection at Stateline.

If the Shingle Springs casino is built, Garza said he would stop in, but continue driving to the lake.

“You’ve got all kinds of things to do in Tahoe,” he said, while walking into the Horizon Casino with his sister.

And his sister said she wants to go where she can shop.

“If there isn’t more of an experience for families than gambling, they’re not going to be long,” she said.

The issue isn’t reserved to California and Nevada.

Frank and Corine Chavez live in Albuquerque, where five Indian casinos dominate the landscape but manage to carve out a piece of market for themselves, the slot-playing couple contends.

“Each one is packed,” she said, while standing in the Stateline casino corridor Sunday.

Corine Chavez said she believes Tahoe may capitalize on tourists wanting an escape that goes farther than the neighborhood Indian casino.

“People will go all over,” she said.

Indeed, Monique and Roland Bourque have been on a nine-month road trip from their home in Quebec and chose Tahoe as a first-time destination.

“We prefer Tahoe. It’s beautiful,” she said.

That’s just the kind of attitude Stateline casino heads like Mike Bradford of Lakeside Inn and Casino are counting on – especially with the revenue losses already recorded through the years.

Bradford said he expects his casino to survive the outcome. But the Lake Tahoe Gaming Alliance member fears cutbacks by all the casinos could hurt service employees the most.

“We’ve been concerned about this for years,” Bradford said of the near-inevitable possibility of Shingle Springs being built.

With the county dropping its suits, the one legal challenge presenting a delay has been waged by a Shingle Springs neighborhood group called Voices for Rural Living.

The City Council may assist the group in its litigation effort as one of four options to be discussed at its next meeting scheduled Tuesday. The council may also engage the county after agreeing to be a “party of interest” in that local government’s fight. The panel may also do nothing.


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