The Tejon Indian Tribe has cleared a major hurdle in its effort to build a massive hotel and casino complex at the foot of the Grapevine in Kern County.
The project, which still faces many regulatory challenges, deserves cautious support. Done properly, it could bring substantial benefits to the tribe, as well as to the entire county.
Last week, Kern County supervisors approved a $218 million agreement with the Tejon Indian Tribe to provide various services, including police and fire protection, at the $600-million hotel-casino planned for construction on about 300 acres of land the tribe owns in Mettler, south of Bakersfield.
A collaboration between the tribe and Hard Rock International, the proposed Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tejon will include a 165,500-square-foot gambling facility and a 400-room hotel, with a spa fitness center, entertainment venue, several dining areas and convention space. Also planned is a 22-acre RV park, tribal administrative offices, and a health care facility.
The agreement the Board of Supervisors approved calls for a $13.3 million, one-time payment to help build a new county fire and sheriff’s substation near the project’s site, as well as to pay for a new deputy sheriff to be equipped and trained. Expected reoccurring payments would be used to cover new positions and equipment replacement in the sheriff’s and fire departments, as well as a gambling treatment program.
Noting the tribe is exempt from paying taxes, the agreement’s purpose is to compensate Kern County for providing law enforcement, and emergency and fire protection services. The tribe also will contribute to the county’s general fund based on a 6 percent hotel-room occupancy tax.
About 1,000 jobs are expected to be created to build the hotel-casino, with 2,000 permanent jobs created to operate it. The agreement contains a provision to encourage the operators to hire at least 50 percent of their workers from local communities.
The hotel-casino is expected to have an annual payroll of $59 million. Local businesses and vendors are expected to realize economic benefits from construction and operation of the hotel-casino, as well.
In 2012, the Tejon Indian Tribe received federal recognition after the Bureau of Indian Affairs admitted an administrative error four decades earlier omitted the tribe from a federal list. Now claiming to have nearly 1,000 members, the tribe has been planning for years to get federal and state approval to build a hotel-casino on its land.
Work is expected to be completed later this year on a required environmental impact assessment, which will be used by the U.S. Department of the Interior to consider the project’s approval. The state Department of Justice’s Division of Gambling Control and California Gambling Control Commission, also must sign off.
The development agreement between the tribe and Hard Rock also must comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, including the requirement that the tribe receive the majority of the casino’s revenues. The agreement also must be approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission.
This massive federal and state bureaucracy is not the only hurdle the Tejon hotel-casino faces. Sacramento-based Stand Up for California, a tribal gaming watchdog, has organized opposition, called for a voter-referendum on the project, and objected to the agreement Kern supervisors approved.
Although supported by labor unions and local businesses, efforts to establish new Indian casinos often are fought in the courts and at the ballot box by gambling opponents and competing casinos.
But California voters have thought otherwise. Repeatedly and overwhelmingly they have supported ballot measures that gave Indian tribes the exclusive right to offer casino-style gambling on tribal lands. It’s time to give that support to the Tejon Indian Tribe.
Dependent on the oil and agriculture industries, Kern has long struggled to diversify it economy. While some success can be noted, the need is great for additional jobs and revenue to flow into the county.
A well-run, responsible Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tejon could accomplish both.