Opposition to Tohono O’odham casino grows

Bobbie Whitehead, Today correspondent
4/22/09

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Opposition continues to mount against what has been reported as the largest proposed casino in Arizona with a price tag of $550 million.

The Tohono O’odham Nation announced plans in January to construct the casino, referred to as the West Valley Resort, on 134 acres in Maricopa County  the tribe purchased in 2003 and asked the federal government to place into trust.

But since the tribe’s announcement, several American Indian tribes have publicly opposed the project as has the city of Glendale, said Craig Tindall, Glendale city attorney.

Glendale city officials released a statement March 25 saying they opposed the proposed casino and the placement of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Maricopa County property into federal trust for an Indian reservation.

“It is clear that removing the land from all state and local regulatory control and converting this property to an Indian reservation, where one has never existed, presents very significant issues for the citizens and business owners of Glendale,” the  statement reads. “Creation of an Indian reservation in the manner proposed by the tribe, with the effect that it will have on the community, is contrary to the intent of federal law.”

The statement goes on to claim that the Tohono O’odham property has no “historic relationship to the Tohono O’odham Nation,” and the city says the tribe is only seeking economic development of the property.

Based on an economic impact study the city paid Elliott Pollack & Company to conduct on the project, the city listed the following areas of concern:

• “The site would be considered a sovereign nation and would place a reservation at that location.

• Of the 6,000 construction jobs estimated by the tribe, only an estimated 10 percent would be filled by Glendale residents and of the ongoing jobs, only one-third would be filled by Glendale residents.

• Studies have shown that casinos, and specifically gaming, produce a spending substitution effect where casino patrons decrease their spending on goods and services to reserve discretionary income for gaming. It is estimated that the substitution effect could be as high as 75 percent.

• The city’s cost to provide basic services to the site would be substantial, including the construction of a new fire station. Ongoing operations costs for public safety could be as high as $3.5 million annually and additional water, wastewater and traffic issues would create added costs that are estimated to be substantial.”

One major contention Glendale officials raised is the added cost of public safety and fire costs with the casino adjacent to the city’s border.

But federally recognized tribes exist as sovereign nations and operate their own police and fire departments. Since the Tohono O’odham Nation has its own police and fire departments, it would provide these services on its reservation.

Tohono O’odham officials were unavailable for comment regarding Glendale’s opposition at press time.

Glendale officials, however, base the public safety cost estimates listed in the study for fire service on the fact that Arizona cities and counties have joint agreements with neighbors to assist each other on fire and public safety calls, Tindall said.

“The person who needs help gets it immediately,” he said, explaining that the city of Phoenix helps Glendale and Glendale helps Phoenix, and neither particularly considers city boundaries.

Tindall said they estimated the closest point for a station to reach the Tohono O’odham Nation property would be 60 or 70 miles away.

While the Tohono O’odham Nation could feasibly service its own property, Tindall said it would be more responsible to have a joint agreement with adjacent cities.

“In the interest of public safety, we would have to make additional investments in our public infrastructure to make sure the highest level of public safety is adhered.”

In addition to the city’s opposition to the casino, Glendale is also considering annexing the Tohono O’odham Nation property, located at Northern Avenue.

“Any county island would be something we’d look at annexing in accordance with state law,” Tindall said.

County islands, he said, are parcels of land surrounded by the city.

Because the Tohono O’odham property is within the Glendale Municipal Planning area, Tindall said, “We have planned this area for many years in anticipation of annexing it.”

All Glendale needs to do to annex the property is seek approval by a certain percentage of property owners in the area and file a petition, he said.

On a West Valley Resort information line, the Tohono O’odham Nation explained it wants to begin construction in early 2010 with an anticipated completion date of 2012.

“However, these dates are tentative as a number of interim steps need to take place before the Tohono O’odham Nation moves forward,” the recorded message stated.

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