Tribe moves a step forward in casino project

Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock, left, speaks to Kevin Kemper, legal counsel for the Howard Hughes Corp., following the City Council's Oct. 12 meeting.

The Elk Grove City Council on Oct. 12 voted 4-0 to approve a change to a development agreement on the 35.9-acre site of the proposed, $400 million Wilton Rancheria casino and resort.

That decision could enable the Wilton Rancheria tribe to purchase land for their casino project from the owner of the nearby Outlet Collection at Elk Grove mall site. The federal government requires tribes have land placed into a trust in order for them to approve casino plans.

The agreement is between the city and the Howard Hughes Corp., the developer of the future Outlet Collection at Elk Grove mall at Highway 99 and Kammerer Road.

Wilton Rancheria’s proposed casino plan on an original portion of the mall property would include a gaming floor with 2,000 slot machines, 84 gaming tables, a 12-story, 302-room hotel, a fitness area and spa, an outdoor pool, a 30,000-square-foot convention space/banquet area, and fine dining restaurants.

Wilton Rancheria Tribal Chair Raymond “Chuckie” Hitchcock expressed his satisfaction with the council’s vote.

“It paves the way to take another step to have that synergy between Wilton Rancheria resort and (the) Outlet Collection mall at Elk Grove,” he said.

Hitchcock further explained what the council’s vote means for the tribe and its proposed casino plan.

“Tonight’s vote was basically a request by the Howard Hughes Corp. and the outlet collection in Elk Grove to remove some encumbrances on a title on the Phase 2 property that they don’t have anything that they’re going to do with,” he said. “The tribe proposes to purchase that property. The lack of encumbrances make it easier (for the tribe) to go through the process to get land in the trust (through the Bureau of Indian Affairs).”

Christopher Jordan, assistant to the city manager, noted that if the agreements remained, the Bureau of Indian Affairs could have exercised its discretion to decline to take the land into trust.

It was emphasized during the meeting that the council’s vote solely pertained to a development agreement between Howard Hughes and the city on the 35.9-acre site, and was not about approving or a denying a casino.

But because the vote pertained to improving the tribe’s chances of getting the land into trust, the public speaker period of this agenda item was filled with people speaking in favor and opposition of a casino in Elk Grove.

Altogether, 23 speakers addressed the council, with 15 speaking in opposition to the casino and one expressing his mixed emotions on the topic.

The concerns of those who spoke against the proposed casino include more crime, drug abuse, the site’s close vicinity to two schools, problem gambling, possible declining property values and a potential loss of the city’s “family-friendly environment.”

Also addressing the council was Kevin Kemper, legal counsel for the Howard Hughes Corp.

Kemper said that Howard Hughes’ interest in the amendment to a development agreement is its effect on the outlet center.

“We’re getting close to receiving sufficient tenant commitments to go forward with the construction of the outlet center,” he said. “This is a big deal. A lot of the prospective tenants are looking at what is happening with this casino with great interest, and we are hoping that if the casino project goes forward, as anticipated, that it would be a tremendous synergy for the outlet center.”

Kemper added that he believes the mall project is on track for an October 2017 opening, and that an approval of the amendment represents “an important step in that process.”

During the council’s deliberation on the matter, Mayor Gary Davis said that he does not believe the casino project would change Elk Grove’s quality of life, but would instead benefit the community.

“We’re growing up as a city, but this project will not define Elk Grove or our quality unless you let it,” he said.

Council Member Darren Suen stated that although he recognizes the “risks inherent with this use,” he is looking forward to the proposed casino as a project that would bring jobs and serve as an amenity with recreation and fine dining, and one that supports quality shops at the future mall.

“I look forward to continuing to work with the mall, the Howard Hughes Corp., with the Wilton Rancheria tribe to make an amenity that is going to be enjoyed by generations to come,” he said.

The tribe said the casino will have trained tribal security, and high-tech internal and external surveillance systems. They also plan to work in a partnership with the Elk Grove police. Last month, the Elk Grove Police Officers Association announced their support of the proposed casino project.

Hitchcock said that the Wilton Rancheria looks forward to bringing a unique place to the city through a casino and resort.

“The tribe is committed to our community and to the people of this city,” he said. “We’re citizens here, as well, and our concerns are their concerns. And we want to make this a very respectable, safe place that everyone can be proud of, and an entertainment value that isn’t here currently in Elk Grove.”