County, tribe agree on terms of casino move

Board of Supervisors approve agreement with Tule River Tribe to relocate Eagle Mt. Casino off the reservation to location near Porterville Airport

By Reggie Ellis

PORTERVILLE – A proposal to relocate a Native American gaming casino from the steep hillsides above Springville to the flat streets of Porterville took another step last week.

On Jan. 7, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and intergovernmental agreement with the Tule River Indian Tribe to address local impacts related to the proposed relocation of the Eagle Mountain Casino to land adjacent to the Porterville Airport. Tule River Tribal Council adopted the MOU at their meeting on Dec. 30, 2019 meeting.

“The tribe has remained committed to ensuring the relocation project is a project that not only contributes to the success of the tribe, but also to the surrounding community,” Tule Indian Tribal Council chair Neil Peyron said. “The County MOU is a strong reflection of that commitment.”

County CAO Jason Bitt said the MOU allows the county to address any impacts from the casino relocation. Under the agreement, the tribe agrees to pay $3.5 million for Sheriff’s law enforcement services, with $1 million due within 30 days of opening and rest paid in 12 quarterly payments beginning on second anniversary of opening day. The tribe also agrees to a one-time payment of $196,000 towards a fire engine and related equipment to be housed at Tulare County Fire Station 19 in Porterville. The proposed relocation project will also include a new tertiary water treatment facility and a fire station at the casino site with the capability to assist the City and County on emergency calls. If a fire station is not constructed, the tribe will make annual payments of $48,667 for fire service. The tribe will also pay an additional $550,000 per year for ongoing public safety equipment and maintenance, road maintenance and traffic control costs, and mental health services costs. 

“The MOU makes us whole for law enforcement, taxes and road work,” Britt said. “Roads were the most complicated part of this MOU.”

RMA Director Reed Schenke said the agreement will also include fair share contributions toward road projects including intersection improvements, traffic signals and roundabouts. The tribe will be asked to fund 7% of the cost to signalize the intersections of Avenue 256 and Spruce and Rockford Road and Highway 190, as well as 59.5% of the cost to rehabilitate Teapot Dome Avenue. 

Prior to opening the casino, the county will make improvements to West Street, Westwood Street and Teapot Dome Avenue. The cost of the roadwork will be split between the tribe ($1.8 million) and the county ($2.09 million) as follows:

• Teapot Dome between Westwood and city limits will cost an estimated $2.2 million with the County providing $891,000 and the tribe paying $1.3 million; 

• Teapot Dome between West and .25 mi west of West will cost an estimated $640,000 and be fully paid by the County; 

• West Street between Teapot Dome and city limits will cost an estimated $326,000 total and be totally funded by the County;

• Westwood Street between Highway 190 and the city limits will cost an estimated $790,000 and be totally funded by the tribe. 

“These are projects we would have gotten to at some point but not necessarily now,” RMA director Reed Schenke said. 

The new, $180 million casino-resort would include 1,750 gaming machines and double the number of table games and poker tables. The complex would include a 100,000 square foot casino, 175-room hotel, 30,000 square feet for a sports bar, restaurant, buffet and food court, 25,000 square foot convention center, and other breakout rooms, which will make the area ideal for conferences, conventions, and other business events. In addition, the project will have a 1,700-seat entertainment venue that would host shows, as well as cultural and other events for the Tribe. The Economic Impact Analysis estimates the Proposed Project would generate $103.6 million in new annual revenue, create 1,200 temporary construction jobs and approximately 978 permanent jobs.

As one of the largest employers in the area, there is broad public support for the relocation of the Eagle Mountain Casino because it will allow current employees a shorter commute time, provide additional employment opportunities and increase tourism in the area. Those who spoke in favor of the project included executive directors of the Porterville and Tulare chambers of commerce, AmVets of Tulare County, Porterville Mayor Martha Flores and Porterville College president Dr. Claudia Lourido-Habib. 

Donette Silva-Carter, CEO of Tulare Chamber of Commerce, said the casino’s relocation would have a positive ripple effect throughout the entire county. 

“The tribe is part of all of our communities in Tulare County,” said Silva-Carter, who was formerly the CEO of the Porterville Chamber of Commerce. “Having a center in southeastern Tulare County is a windfall. Great venue to bring more tourism dollars and more impact for Tulare County.”

In November, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) signed a record of decision (ROD) and issued a secretarial determination giving the Tule Tribe its blessing to relocate the casino to a 40-acre site near the Porterville aiport, 15 miles off reservation land.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) generally prohibits gaming activities on lands acquired on behalf of a tribe after Oct. 17, 1988. One exception, known as the “Secretarial Determination” or “two-part determination” permits a tribe to conduct gaming off reservation land if it is in the best interest of the tribe and its members and if it is not detrimental to the surrounding community.

Peyron said moving the casino off the reservation will mean more water for new homes. Currently the Tribe has a moratorium on new housing due to water restrictions, which has cased 300 families to be put on a waiting list for a home. Charles Farmer, director of HR for Eagle Mt. Casino since 2001, said if the casino doesn’t move, Eagle Mt. may have to drastically reduce its workforce by one third. The new casinto is project for completion in 2021. According to the BIA, the tribe has until Oct. 7, 2020 to get Gov. Gavin Newsom’s concurrence that the move is in the best interest of the tribe. The tribe can request an extension for up to 180 days.

“The Tribe is looking forward to the relocation of the Eagle Mountain Casino and intends to continue its long-standing history of investing in the local community,” Peyron said. “Securing the support of the County through this MOU will hopefully help fast track the approval of our project.”

Supervisor Dennis Townsend, who represents Porterville and the land surrounding the reservation in the southeast portion of the county, had the honor of making the motion to approve the MOU. Supervisor Amy Shuklian asked the bus to the casino to wait for her before seconding the motion, which passed unanimously. 

“The County and the Tribe have benefited from a productive relationship for many years and we are pleased to have reached a mutual agreement in mitigating the impacts associated with relocating Eagle Mountain Casino,” Board chair Pete Vander Poel said. “We appreciate and are supportive of the Tribe’s efforts to improve our local economy while also improving County infrastructure benefiting all Tulare County residents.”

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