Word last week that Hard Rock International will develop and manage the Tejon Indian Tribe's proposed $600 million hotel and casino in Mettler is the latest in a series of steps laid out in laws regulating such collaborations — but by no means is the project a done deal.
Before the casino can open, the tribe and Hard Rock will need to negotiate sensitive deals to finance the project and provide law enforcement and fire protection services, either internally or through contracts with local agencies.
As part of those talks, it's in the tribe's and Hard Rock's interests to maintain the community's goodwill. For if any cracks develop in local government's support, the tribe could have a hard time getting through the ongoing federal environmental review that remains one of the project's biggest question marks.
Perhaps the best thing the project has going for it in that regard is economic benefit, starting with 1,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent positions.
Aside from those direct jobs and the associated $59 million annual payroll, the hotel-casino complex is expected to generate an additional 1,200 jobs for the local economy.
Numbers like those put the tribe and Hard Rock in good standing to work cooperatively with local government officials.
In an email Friday, County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop called the project an "extraordinary win for Kern County and our residents."
"We're excited and positioned to work closely with Hard Rock International and the Tejon Tribe to work through a thorough and open planning process, and create what we hope will be a long-term, lucrative partnership," he wrote.
The tribe and Hard Rock envision a 165,500-square-foot casino and 400-room hotel with 13 restaurants, an entertainment venue, a spa-fitness center and convention space northwest of South Sabodan and Wild Flower streets in Mettler. The tribe's 306-acre property would also include a 22-acre RV park, as well as tribal administrative offices, a health care facility and housing.
Much progress has been made already. But before any construction may begin, the partnership must get through a long approval, design and financing process.
Even before the Tejon Tribe won federal recognition in 2012, its leadership began working with Las Vegas casino executive Bill Wortman. During the roughly 10 years those talks continued, the tribe was in negotiations with Nevada-based Station Casinos, said Scott Nielson, a consultant managing the project on behalf of Hard Rock, which took over the discussions in 2017. Hard Rock is owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The casino project's all-important federal environmental review is already years into a process that can take nine years or more. Tejon Tribe Chairman Octavio Escobedo said the review will take at least three more years and maybe up to five.
It's during that time the project will be at its most vulnerable, because coordinated opposition — especially if it comes from local government — could potentially lead to the proposal's rejection.
Kern's Board of Supervisors will not be asked to give the project a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, at least not directly. But it is likely to have an important role as county officials continue to negotiate with the tribe on the delivery of public safety services through the Kern County sheriff's and fire departments.
Both sides voiced optimism that they can work out a deal that would give the Sheriff’s Office and the Fire Department facilities with which they could serve not only the casino area but also the surrounding area.
Chairman Escobedo noted the tribe also has the option of forming its own first-responder agencies that could serve the area. He emphasized, as did Nielson, that the safety and security of the casino's visitors, employees and tribe members are top priorities.
"As a sovereign nation, we have the liberty and freedom to create things that ensure that we have the same opportunities and same liberties for safety and security for the rest of the community," he said.
For his part, Nielson said it's too soon to talk about what any service agreement between the county and the tribe would look like, "because there are a number of different ways that (security and safety at the casino-hotel project) is."
The proposed casino must also pass muster with the state officials. California's Legislative Analyst's Office says Vegas-style casinos are regulated by the state Division of Gambling Control in the Department of Justice and the California Gambling Control Commission.
The next step following approval of the federal review would be to design the casino and hotel complex. That process cannot be completed until after the project's scope is finalized through the review process.
Implicit in all of this is that the development agreement between the tribe and Hard Rock complies with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which was passed into law in 1988. It spells out the terms governing agreements between Indian tribes and casino developers.
Under IGRA, for example, the tribe must receive the majority of the casino's revenues and Hard Rock will receive a fee for managing the gambling operation. Also, the management contract, which must be approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission, may extend no longer than seven years. After that time it can be extended, renegotiated or given to another management company.
A final step prior to construction is securing financing. Nielson said the casino may be paid for by a loan, bond sale revenues or a combination of the two.
Just how attractive the terms of that financing would be will be based on the casino's location and amenities, he said, as well as Hard Rock's reputation and financial market conditions at the time the money is requested.
If the process appears to remove the tribe's control of its project, it doesn't. Nielson said the Tejon Tribe will have substantial say in how its casino-hotel turns out.
"It's the tribe's project. It's the owner," he said. Hard Rock contributes ideas and expertise, he added, "but (tribal leaders) make all the decisions on what it's ultimately going to look like, how big it is, that sort of thing."