Casino discussion reignites at city council

Councilmembers defend against accusations of conflict of interest; public cites data that suggests casinos negatively impact small towns

Casino discussion reignites at city councilAs members of the Ridgecrest City Council defended themselves from continued alleged conflict-of-interest violations as a result of their support of the proposed casino, members of the community warned against moral, economic and social consequences of the planned casino and entertainment complex.



News Review Staff Writer

The Ridgecrest City Council met to go over one of its briefest agendas in recent memory, but speakers took advantage of the full hour of public comment to discuss the proposed casino project.

Member of the public and advocate of the local “CasiNO” movement used the time to bring up previous accusations that Mayor Peggy Breeden and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mower were in conflict with the city’s interests when they approved the MSA and land sale.

In a lawsuit brought against the city earlier this year, Mike Neel alleged that the mayor’s advertising business The Swap Sheet stood to gain from the casino. He added that Mower’s hardware store and construction company routinely benefit from approved projects and would do so greatly if the casino broke ground.

Neel attempted to file an injunction to halt all casino progress but was denied by the court in April. He has since withdrawn the lawsuit, according to City Attorney Lloyd Pilchen.

“I’m sick and tired of it,” said Breeden during council comment. “Whether you believe that I did right or I did wrong, I am not going to take it any more.”

Breeden said the accusations have gone beyond the alleged conflict of interest, and she has been hearing “vicious lies” from residents ever since the 2016 election.

“I was accused of taking $15,000 from the Indian tribe to go ahead and continue my support,” she said. “It was investigated. It was not true. If anybody thinks I can be bought for $15,000 – give me one-and-a-half million, maybe I’ll think about it. But not $15,000. I won’t be bought for love or money. I will not be bought, and I resent the heck out of you all for saying that or anybody believing it.

“I’m not going to stand for it. I’m not going to listen to it and the people who spread it — you’re liars. That’s all I can say.

“I think it’s inappropriate to be told over and over again that I’m a thief and I can be bribed. If I continue to hear it and you say it — the laws work both ways. I’m not threatening anybody. I’m just saying do not do this any longer to me, to my business and to this community.”

Mower added that one of the accusations was that all the property he owned in town would increase in value as a result of the project.

“However, the anti-casino people say it’s going to cause property values to go down,” he said. “So I guess everybody’s property values are going to go down but mine? If you want to go further, any businessman in town shouldn’t vote for any business coming into town because it might benefit them? It is kind of ridiculous to say that I might benefit. It’s a very weak argument and it’s been tried before.

“I have no problem with people being for or against the casino as long as they’re telling the truth. And sometimes the truth is distorted, and I just think people need to watch out for that.”

The project has seen little movement since the municipal services agreement and land sale between the city and the Timbisha Shoshone tribe were approved by council in 2016. But escrow on the sale is due to expire this month, with the option to renew still on the city’s table.

“Please don’t approve an extension of the escrow period for the casino,” said Lyn Whitcomb, pastor of Cornerstone Bible Church.

Whitcomb said he represents 15 churches in town that are opposed to the casino project. He spoke about the moral issue of gambling, something he and many members of the public have argued the last two years, but he cited financial and community concerns as well.

“There are economic and social consequences from casino gambling that everyone in the community – churchgoers and nonchurch- goers alike – will be forced to bear,” he said.

He cited a study by Baylor University Economics Professor Earl Grinols that asserts that there are three dollars in “social costs” for every $1 gained from a casino.

“Whether it’s increased crime, declining productivity or more spending on services like unemployment payments, gambling is a social negative that is bad for the economy.”

He also referred to an article from The Atlantic – “How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts” – which estimates that 20 percent of gamblers are “problem” or “pathological” gamblers who contribute 30-60 percent of total gambling revenue.

He added that according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, communities with casinos experience increases in many different types of crime, including theft, prostitution and drug use.

“Everyone knows all the evils with which gambling is associated,” added Pastor Paul Neipp of Pilgrim Lutheran Church. “Does anyone think the community would be gaining in strength of character by injecting gambling into our social bloodstream?

“It’s difficult to abandon a project one has dedicated so much time and effort to. But sometimes the best way to go forward is to return to the starting point and realize a big mistake has been made. May God give you the courage and integrity to prevent this tragedy.”

Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Chair George Gholson spoke up to defend the project. He questioned the practices of the local churches.

“The foundation of any religion that I’ve ever studied is the freedom of choice,” said Gholson. “Freedom to choose when to go to church, if to go to church, where to go to church, how to serve. It’s the foundation of America – freedom of religion. I hear a lot about how the casino is going to bring hellfire and brimstone to this community. But at the same time, I certainly don’t see any signs up for revivals. I don’t see the clergy out in the streets reaching out to educate, to bring people into the fold.”

Some members of the audience noted that there was a weekend-long revival at the Nazarene Church in mid September.

“When I was a young man, that was a thing,” he continued. “There was a sense of need to get the word out to people to educate them to not go to the casino. If it’s such a crisis here in town, why aren’t you doing something about it now by reaching out to the people in town and getting them into that church? Educate the people, teach the people instead of coming after us. You all have access to Google just like everybody else.”

Gholson encouraged the public to do its own research before listening to “propaganda” and to make an informed decision.“If you really don’t like the casino based on religion, I respect that. But if you don’t like the casino because somebody is telling you we’re going to use a lot of water and grow marijuana there? That’s stupid.”

Public commenter Tom Rafalski responded to Gholson that the public and the “church people” were doing their homework and that the information collected at noridge was exactly that.

Shawn King spoke from the public as well, saying that while she’s Christian, most people agree with the maxim to “treat others the way you want to be treated.” She said she looked to secular sources – including Scientific American, The Atlantic and the National Gambling Problem Center – that reaffirmed many of the concerns expressed by anti-casino residents.

“Much like drug addiction, no one goes out and intends to get addicted to gambling,” she said. “I think we need to consider that. We don’t want to incur more difficulties for our friends and neighbors.”

Scott Miller, a frequent advocate for the casino project, reminded council and the public that the city had already approved the MSA and committed to honor it in good faith.

“I’m a business owner in Ridgecrest, and I support the tribe,” he said. “People forget this isn’t just a casino. Will an entertainment complex bring new business to the town? Absolutely.”

Miller was critical of the information people were citing in opposition to the project, saying that the sources were all relating to areas of the country and demographics that are very different from those of Ridgecrest.

Casino supporters, who have adopted the “Let RC Grow” name, have also criticized the opposition for cherry-picking sources and leaving out the economic benefits of casinos.

Former Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Commander and Naval Air Weapons Station Commanding Officer Capt. Mark Storch was the last member of the public to speak. “I commanded China Lake during the 2005 [Base Realignment and Closure] and I’ve been through two BRACs,” he said. Storch had been officer-in-charge of the Navy Air Pacific Repair Activity Detachment in Guam, which was closed during the 1995 BRAC.

“I’m familiar with what happens when things go bad in a BRAC. I’m also familiar when things go good in a BRAC, like they did for us in 2005. I’d like for you to consider that our relationship – the city and the Navy – is a fragile thing, an important thing, and it’s judged by BRAC commissioners as part of their process to evaluate a base.

“Any negative issue, any issue of notoriety can cause them to assign a risk … It doesn’t take many incidents of notoriety to cause a problem. As a former captain in the U.S. Navy, I know that my sailors can get into trouble. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a casino, but it’s a place people get into trouble. And it’s going to be right next to the front gate.

“The Navy is the economic engine of this valley. It dwarfs anything else around it. All of our businesses and the value of our homes are dependent on the success of the Navy at China Lake.”

For more casino updates, stay tuned to the News Review.

Story First Published: 2018-10-05