The cards appear to be falling right for Arizona’s Tohono O’odham tribe, which wants to build the West Valley Resort and Casino adjacent to Glendale and serve the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Even the tribe’s list of enemies fighting the casino has shortened recently, when the city council of Glendale in a narrow 4-3 vote decided to give up battling the tribe, and sit down with it to negotiate the best terms.
But the battle isn’t over yet. Late last week Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake introduced a bill that would ban any new casinos in the great Phoenix region. Glendale is an eastern suburb of Phoenix. The bill bans casinos “on lands not connected to an extant reservation,” clearly a reference to the Tohono O’odham reservation in Tucson, not Phoenix.
McCain and Flake’s bill is a companion bill to U.S. House Bill 1410, which was introduced by Arizona Congressman Trent Franks and approved by the House last September.
Franks’ bill, also called the Keep the Promise Act of 2013, was designed to overturn a 1986 settlement, known as the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Lands Replacement Act, and ban the development of any casinos on land in the Phoenix metropolitan area on Indian land acquired after April 9, 2013.
On July 3 Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn informed the tribe that the department has agreed to put 54 acres into trust for the tribe. This step was required before it could put a $600 million casino and resort near the Arizona Cardinals stadium. The land is in the unincorporated part of Maricopa County.
The casino will include over 1,000 slot machines, 50 gaming tables and a bingo hall. The hotel will have 600 rooms, five restaurants, two bars and a nightclub.
Two tribes that operate casinos in the area have joined the state of Arizona in fighting it in court. Seeing that this approach appears to have just about run its course, representatives of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community last week testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to ask the Senate to support a bill, the Keep the Promise Act of 2013, passed previously in the House that would prevent the casino.
Diane Eos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, pled her tribe’s case before the committee during a two-hour testimony. It included her statement that the Tohono O’odham leaders “looked us in the face and lied” in order to mislead about their intentions to build a casino in Glendale years before they unveiled those plans in 2009. “They broke faith with us and the voters of Arizona,” she added, accusing the tribe of saying that it would never build a casino in the Phoenix area at a time when voters were asked to approve of the tribal state gaming compacts.
She agrees with the McCain-Flake bill, as well.
“This important legislation will reaffirm the tribal state gaming policy that was approved by the voters in Arizona in 2002,” Enos said in a statement.
“A key element of the policy was that Indian tribes promised that there would be no additional casinos allowed in the Phoenix metropolitan area. This will stop additional county islands inside cities from becoming new casino reservations.”
Her Senate testimony was followed by that of Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. who said his tribe followed all of the laws and “gracefully answered every allegation no matter how ridiculous or how offensive.” Norris asked the Senate not to support the House bill.
Rep. Paul Gosar, who represents the district that includes Glendale, told the committee “TO’s promise to build no additional casinos in Phoenix is not something that Congress can ignore. No entity, governmental or otherwise, should be rewarded for deceptive conduct that violates a compact and is contrary to the will of the voters.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, who represents Tucson, took a different view. “Every court case, every administrative review, has upheld that law and the tribe’s right to the West Valley and the development of that” project, he said.
The Salt River tribe and the other opponents call the Tohonos’ attempt to build a casino near Glendale an example of “reservation shopping,” i.e. acquiring land far from a tribe’s ancestral home for a casino. Glendale is over 100 miles from the tribe’s original 10,000-acre homeland that was inundated by a federal dam project in the 1970s and 1980s. Congress passed a law that provided $30 million for the tribe to relocate.
That law, the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Land Replacement Act was co-written by McCain, who told constituents that he sympathized with both sides, but felt that the courts have sided with the Tohonos.
That law prevented the tribe from purchasing land within the corporate limits of a city. The tribe purchased land surrounded by, but not within the boundaries of Glendale, which, until just a few weeks ago was one of the litigants fighting the tribe. Two weeks ago the council withdrew its opposition to the casino resort.
Washburn said that the land’s location is a positive thing. The secretary wrote, “Such lands have an increased likelihood of being close to a significant population base, which opens the door for significant economic development opportunities across a range of industries.”
Senators McCain and Flake said their bill would fix the problem.
In a statement, the senators said, “The proposed West Valley Resort in Glendale, Arizona, has generated tremendous controversy and confusion in Arizona. We share the objections of many fellow Arizonans when we see attempts to bring Indian gaming to metropolitan areas that are on lands not connected to an extant reservation.” McCain noted, “As one of the authors of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the Gila Bend Indian Reservation Replacement Lands Act, Congress did not envision Indian gaming on the kinds of lands involved in the West Valley issue. We remain open to ideas from Valley and tribal leaders on ways to resolve the differences that exist on this issue.”
The resolution has been sent to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, but no hearing has been scheduled and Congress will take its annual summer recess in August. Julie Tarallo, McCain’s deputy press secretary, explained, “If the Senate passes H.R. 1410, and isn’t amended by the Senate either in Committee or on the floor, then H.R. 1410 goes to the president for signing into law. If the Senate passes S. 2670, then the Senate bill goes to the House and the House will have to pass S. 2670 to get it signed by the president.”
The Tohono O’odham reservation is located in the Tucson area and further south. The tribe received the 54-acre parcel in trust from the U.S. Department of Interior on July 3 as part of 135 acres the tribe purchased in 2003. It sits less than two miles from Jobing.com Arena and the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Supporters said the 1.2 million square foot resort, including a 75,000 square gaming floor, 400-room resort hotel, restaurants, spas and other high-end will generate $300 million in annual revenue and create 3,000 new jobs.
The Glendale City Council, which strongly opposed the casino plan for years, shifted its position and now opposes HB 1410. But Mayor Jerry Weiers, who is in the council minority, praised the senators for their actions. He said, “Our sister cities know that unless Congress acts, they may be next. There are over 200 other county islands in the Phoenix metropolitan area. And the Tohono O’odham Nation attorneys have said the tribe has the right to close its existing three casinos and open them on these county islands. We are a test case, but it is the start of a very slippery slope.
If Congress does not act, the entire Phoenix area should be prepared for more off-reservation casinos.”
Meanwhile, the tribe recently selected Hunt Construction Group and Penta Building Group to oversee the Tohono O’odham casino project. Hunt has worked on Twin Arrows Resort and Casino in Flagstaff and Penta has worked on several Las Vegas casino renovations and expansions. Site preparation and other preliminary activities have been completed.