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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.

In the decade or so since the San Manuel, Pechanga and Morongo casinos opened, they have settled into the landscape as features both notable and, now, seldom discussed.

Residents and officials say that traffic has worsened, although the area's population also has grown significantly in the same period. Certain crimes have increased, by some accounts. And the tribes have carved an unmistakable presence in the worlds of politics, business and philanthropy.

On a temperate summer afternoon in Wolf Creek Park this month, in a middle-class Temecula housing development, Helen Harper watched her grandson clamber on a tent-topped play structure.

Visible less than a mile away was the 13-story Pechanga Resort & Casino, which opened in 2002.

About that time, work started on the 1,790-home Wolf Creek subdivision. Locals say that many of the new houses, once purchased, quickly were rented to casino employees.

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The casino, the color of light sand, seemed from the little corner park to be soldered to the mountain range behind it.

"It's weird: if you don't go there, you don't really know it's there," Harper said. Still, she added a moment later, "Everybody is aware of it."

There are clear contrasts between the Inland Empire and Sonoma County.

The combined population of Riverside and San Bernardino counties is 4.35 million, nearly nine times Sonoma County's. Highways web the Southern California region, while just one freeway bisects Sonoma County.

Temecula, with 105,208 residents, is 2? times the size of Rohnert Park and, while smaller than Santa Rosa, is part of a cluster of conjoined cities with a combined 330,000 residents. And the Inland Empire is the state's fastest-growing region, with few growth controls, while Sonoma County has had strict urban growth boundaries in place for more than a decade.

At the same time, there are distinct similarities.

Temecula Valley wineries attract more than 500,000 visitors a year. The Morongo casino is in the region's more rural east, on a reservation next to the city of Banning with its 30,000 residents. Like Rohnert Park, Temecula and its neighbors are largely commuter cities.

And Inland Empire casino projects were fiercely opposed, as they have been in Sonoma County, although that resistance has largely faded.

Also, if the Graton Rancheria's gambling palace opens (a lawsuit seeking to derail it goes to court Aug. 2), Sonoma County will have one casino for every 246,000 residents, while in the Inland Empire there is one major casino for every 477,000 residents.

"They have got the right to be concerned," said Gary Seipel, 66, of San Bernardino, referring to Sonoma County residents who dread the Graton Resort & Casino's coming.

Seipel, who lives within shouting distance of the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino hall — which has 3,000 slot machines — moved to the neighborhood next to the tribe's then-impoverished reservation in 1980.

The San Manuel casino in 1986 opened a bingo hall in a tent above a 20-acre foothill plateau called the Tahiti Parcel. The hall closed at 10 p.m. each night.

"That was successful and it was manageable," said Seipel, a retired Air Force officer.

In 2005, after grading the Tahiti Parcel and prevailing against opponents, the tribe opened its 24-hour-a-day casino on land it bought at the edge of its reservation, on the main access road to surrounding neighborhoods, including Seipel's. Its only concession was that alcohol would not be served before 5 p.m.

"It hasn't been a happy experience," said Seipel, who said traffic has increased nearly fourfold, to the point that there have been several fatal accidents and he no longer feels comfortable riding his bicycle nearby.

"The amount of thefts went up. We've had people park outside our house — the professional ladies — we find drug paraphernalia in the street, condoms at the curb," he said, pointing out the two locks on his mailbox.

"It used to be nice and quiet at night. We loved it; that's why we lived here. We don't have any of that anymore," he said.

Just as in Sonoma County, where feelings about the Graton Rancheria casino are sharply divided, on the opposite side of Seipel's street is a differing opinion.

"The reservation security, they do keep the houses here safe. They monitor it here and keep it secure," said Brenda Paredes, 42, a stay-at-home mother.

The San Manuel tribe has a $1.6 million contract with the Sheriff's Department for a unit that serves the reservation and the casino, which has its own 400-person security force.

"It's a benefit to us having the casino, because they pay for more services than they use," said Sheriff's Sgt. Ed Finneran, who heads the eight-person unit.

In Temecula, Police Chief Andre O'Harra said he has a good working relationship with the Pechanga tribe, and that little crime occurs around the casino site.

Statistics from the Temecula Police Department show that in the years after the casino opened, two crimes rose dramatically in its vicinity. Disturbing the peace offenses rose from 104 in 2004 to 161 in 2006. Drunk in public offenses rose from 233 to 485, but dropped to just 62 by '08.

If there is a common denominator to opinions about how the Inland Empire casinos have shaped surrounding communities it is that they have greatly worsened traffic. And if there is another, it is that they hire a lot of people.

Paredes, near the San Manuel casino, sided with her neighbor Seipel on one count: "The traffic is horrible whenever there is an event at the casino, and that's pretty much every weekend," she said.

To the east, at Consuelo's on West Ramsey Street in Banning, Frank Aguilera oversaw a breakfast rush at the Mexican restaurant he has owned for 18 years. Banning's unemployment rate was 11 percent in April and Aguilera, taking a break, said: "The tribe is good for business and the casino; it brings a lot of jobs and is good for the people."

At Wolf Creek Park, Sherri Tryon, 42, waited to pick up her daughter from the Temecula Luise? Elementary School, the name of which, like so many in the area, reflects some aspect of the Pechanga tribe.

"I've seen it go from a tent," the 18-year Temecula resident said of the Pechanga casino. "Traffic has become ugly. But it provides a lot of jobs."

Then she broaches a topic that Graton Casino critics fear will infect Sonoma County: gambling's ills.

Tryon once worked in the cage at the Pala Resort & Casino in northern San Diego County, exchanging chips for cash. It was fun, she said, until "it got old. The second-hand smoke and watching everybody come up for cash advance after cash advance."

She said she watched her mother gamble away her money day after day at Pechanga. Tryon wrestled with her own gambling problem, too, and sees others do the same.

"When I first lived here, I'd go up there and lose $200 in half an hour. I know a lot of people who go into that cycle," she said. "They go up there and just say, 'I'll spend a half hour here,' and they spend a week's pay. It has positives, but that's the negative."

In the window of Banning Jewelry and Loan, a white-painted brick building on West Ramsey Street not far from City Hall, a neon sign says "Open Late." It is the sort of pawn shop storefront easy to find in strip malls ringing any of the region's casinos.

Rohnert Park officials are considering zoning changes that would make it harder for pawn shops to proliferate in the city.

Lizette Barbera, who with her husband owns the 5-year-old Banning pawn shop, concedes that the casino boosts business.

"To be honest with you; it benefits me," she said. "They gamble, they lose money, and I'm here to help," she said.

But the city, too, has gained from the Morongo casino, said Barbara Hanna, who served on the Banning City Council from 1986 to 1990 and from 2003 to 2012.

"I think Banning has been very fortunate," said Hanna, who worked on economic policy for the city of Riverside and as a councilwoman was part of the first joint meeting between city and Morongo officials.

"Because we share a border and because of what's gone on at the state level (with agreements between the state and tribes with casinos), they're ... responsible for any impacts," Hanna said. "So they have been very supportive. Almost every year they've bought firetrucks or police cars and other items that benefit the city."

The Morongo tribe has given about $1 million a year to the city and area nonprofit groups. It is also, Hanna said, teaming with the city and county to build a road parallel to Interstate 10 to alleviate congestion.

The tribe hosts the annual meeting of west Riverside County governments. It is underwriting the full cost of Banning's centennial celebration, to be held at the resort's ballroom. And last year the city's Chamber of Commerce honored Tribal Chairman Robert Martin for his leadership role in the community and local economy.

"It's one thing to be involved and it's another thing to take leadership, and they're taking leadership," Hanna said. "They're a player. They're important."

The Pechanga and San Manuel also have distributed millions of dollars to their communities.

In San Bernardino, the San Manuel tribe has a deal with the District Attorney's Office to cover casino-related prosecutions, and also pays the San Bernardino Police Department $1 million a year for services.

And over the years, the tribe has announced about $70 million in gifts to local causes, including a cancer research center, food banks and schools.

It has also, whether out of speculative or charitable purposes, been buying homes from casino neighbors who want to leave.

Nick Bradford, 25, lives not far from Seipel. On his block are about a dozen homes, 10 of which, he said, the San Manuel tribe has purchased in recent years from people having trouble selling them.

"If you can't sell, they understand that they've caused inconvenience and they're trying to step in," said Bradford, whose backyard is about 100 feet from the casino parking garage.

Tribal spokesman Jacob Coin said in a statement that the tribe has been purchasing the homes "to assist in addressing any impacts that the tribal casino enterprise might have on the neighborhood."

As for the Pechanga, since 2005 the tribe has given about $30 million combined to Temecula and Riverside County for public services including law enforcement, and for traffic mitigation. It has also donated $14 million to nonprofit groups and schools, helping form a bulwark during the recession and its aftermath, officials said.

"Do we have a good relationship with the tribe? Eh, we have our bumps, but when it comes down to it, if we need help, they're there," said Temecula Councilman Ron Roberts, the city's longtime liaison to the Pechanga tribe.

Still, relations have soured at times in ways that suggest that city and county officials, though they are reluctant to say so directly, believe the casino has impacts greater than those being mitigated.

Temecula officials, including Roberts, voted in 2010 to sue the Pechanga, saying the tribe was in violation of an agreement they had spent 2? years negotiating under which it was to pay the city at least $52 million over 21 years to address impacts on traffic, law enforcement and other public services.

Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro at the time called Temecula's legal maneuver "absurd" and the tribe refused to make scheduled payments, contending the agreement with the city was dependent on one being in place with the county as well.

That deal was to address impacts to the county Sheriff's Department, mental health services, District Attorney's Office and Public Defender's Office.

The two sides never came to agreement.

"We started talking to them ... but it never really came to fruition," said Jennifer Sargent, Riverside County's principal management analyst.

In 2011, a judge dismissed Temecula's suit, saying the tribe's gaming compact with the state did not authorize the legal action by the city.

However, throughout that period the tribe and city, as well as a coalition that included residents and winery owners, worked together closely to prevent a massive proposed quarry on mountain land south of Temecula.

"They were right with us trying to show the county what a bad plan it was," said Kathleen Hamilton, 71, a Temecula resident who helped lead the opposition. "They were marvelous in every respect."

The seven-year battle ended in November, when the Pechanga spent $20 million to buy the land, which it believes is the site where its people were created. The city established a day to annually honor the tribe for its actions.

The tribe has "taken away the biggest threat ... to our city. It was a heroic effort. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts," one Temecula council member told local media.

"They've built a very good reputation in this town," said Dino Delagarza, manager of a popular Temecula barbecue joint, Texas Lil's.

That reputation has taken root among some of the area's younger set.

Alaska Zimowski, 18, of Temecula, often eats at the casino's buffet restaurant and has hopes of working at the resort. "If I could be a blackjack dealer, definitely," he said.

"It's stunning," his friend, Alex Strukma, 18, said of the casino, where his mother has worked in the cage and his stepfather in security. "It's making money."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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