Inland Empire's casino lessons for Sonoma County

  • Families walk and ride their bikes through the Wolf Creek neighborhood of Temecula on Thursday, June 6, 2013. The Pechanga Resort and Casino looms over the neighborhood in the background, separated by only by a six lane street. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Casinos are not quite king in the stony mountain ranges and paved desert valleys of California's Inland Empire.

But the tallest building in Riverside and San Bernardino counties is the 27-story tower of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians' casino resort, spearing the horizon of the San Gorgonio Pass between the San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains.

In the Temecula Valley, the Pechanga Band of Luise? Indians, made wealthy from gambling, dispenses millions of dollars to Temecula City Hall, schools and nonprofits.

To the north, in San Bernardino County, the path to political power for the newest county supervisor, James Ramos, is intertwined with the growing fortunes of his tribe, the San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians, which opened its Las Vegas-style casino in 2004.

Together, the three tribes employ more than 10,000 people in casino-related jobs. They have endowed university programs, built roads, bought emergency vehicles for local agencies, purchased naming rights for baseball stadiums and opened off-reservation gas stations, restaurants, shopping centers and hotels as distant as the nation's capital.

Tribal leaders are directors of Chambers of Commerce and visitors bureaus. They have rained cash in the political arena, spending at least $147 million on lobbyists and local, state and federal campaigns.

"They are talked about as a hiring agent and as a major player now in the cultural and political world," said Inland Empire historian Larry Burgess, an adjunct professor at UC Riverside.

The experiences of the Inland Empire, primarily the urbanized areas of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, provide a glimpse of what may be in store for Sonoma County, where the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is on track to open a 3,000-slot-machine casino this year outside Rohnert Park after a decade of controversy, litigation and regulatory hurdles. It would be the county's second Nevada-style casino; the other is the Dry Creek Rancheria's River Rock Casino in the hills above Geyserville.

There is a key difference between the circumstances of the Graton Rancheria's impending casino operation and the Inland Empire's: The Sonoma County tribe signed revenue-sharing deals with Rohnert Park and the county that are to direct to each jurisdiction at least $10 million a year for 20 years for public safety, gambling addiction services, education and other public services.

The southern tribes did not reach such agreements with local jurisdictions, and, on occasion, resisted efforts by cities and counties to establish them — though they have signed lesser and shorter-term deals in some cases.

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