A campaign has been launched to build public support for the Tejon Indian Tribe's proposed $600 million hotel and casino half an hour south of Bakersfield, and its success could prove pivotal as the project proceeds through a series of state and federal approval processes.
Postcards printed in English and Spanish were mailed out recently promoting the project's potential benefits: new jobs, tourism, private investment in local infrastructure and opportunities for tribal members. The mailers ask recipients to signal their overall support, willingness to attend a public hearing and be kept informed about the project.
"The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tejon will bring significant economic benefits and new entertainment options to Kern County while creating a new economic future for the Tejon Indian Tribe," the postcards state. "Show your support and help us make this exciting project a reality!"
The campaign underscores how important public support will be for a project that offers significant local advantages but which, critics say, could also have a number of unintended consequences.
Project representative Scott Nielson said the postcards were sent in anticipation of a public hearing, not yet scheduled but expected to take place locally later this year, that will be part of the project's federal environmental review. The tribe and its development partner, Florida-based Hard Rock International, would like people to speak favorably about their plan.
"What we would like to do is tell our story and raise support for the project from people who are naturally inclined to support it," Nielson said. He was unable to state how many postcards were sent out, where or at what cost.
The project has won vocal support from county officials, the Kern Economic Development Corp. and Tejon Ranch Co., the Lebec-based agribusiness and real estate development company that operates a retail and industrial center near the casino.
Potential economic benefits may be the biggest attraction at this point. Located on farmland just west of Highway 99 in Mettler, the 52-acre development is expected to generate 1,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent positions with an associated $59 million annual payroll.
The 400-room hotel and 165,500-square-foot casino would be located next to a 22-acre RV park. The property would also become home to administrative offices, a health care facility and housing for tribal members.
Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up for California, a tribal gaming watchdog based in the Sacramento area, said the project could be hindered if opponents make a stronger case than supporters in the eyes of the federal agency with the most say in the matter.
"In the past, when there's been sustained opposition, the Department of the Interior has been slow to approve (Indian gaming) projects," she said. "And in a couple of projects, (the department) actually denied an application."
Stand Up has taken a skeptical position with regard to the Tejon tribe's project. Noting that the project is discretionary — it's not located on tribal land — the group has called on county officials to gauge what level of community support it enjoys, possibly by putting an advisory vote on the November ballot.
The group emphasized that if the U.S. secretary of the interior finds the proposed casino is not detrimental to the surrounding community, it must ask then California's governor to concur.
Stand Up acknowledged the project would come with economic benefits. But it also pointed out the potential for unintended consequences, such as impacts on other gambling or entertainment businesses, redirection of tax revenues away from state and local governments, greater use of a tribal court to settle casino-related disputes, and added work for local fire and law enforcement agencies.
Countering the project backers' campaign postcards, an eight-page summary provided by the group calls on members of the public to contact local elected officials to express any concerns they may have about the project.
Nielson said the project will look for support not only among general members of the public but also people who it considers naturally supportive. That would include labor unions and vendors who hope to do business with the hotel and casino, he said, as well as potential future employees.