Council hears more casino concerns, analyses

As public agencies wait to weigh in, casino debate continues

Council hears more casino concerns, analysesCouncil members (pictured from left) Lindsey Stephens, Wallace Martin, Peggy Breeden, Eddie Thomas and Mike Mower listen to testimony from the last meeting — Photo by Laura Austin

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By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

With the Navy remaining largely silent during casino discussions over the last few years, former Naval Air Weapons Station Commanding Officer Mark Storch’s recent comments at a Ridgecrest City Council meeting came as a surprise to some. Storch warned that a casino could reflect poorly on China Lake if the country were to face a Base Realignment and Closure action in the near future.

Many casino supporters pointed out that Storch no longer speaks for the Navy and that the Department of Defense announced this year that a 2019 BRAC is very unlikely. But the discussion brought more attention to a January letter from current NAWS Commanding Officer Capt. Paul M. Dale outlining many of the Navy’s concerns.

While there has still been little communication between the Navy and the city regarding the casino, China Lake did respond to the Timbisha Shoshone Draft Tribal Environmental Impact Report – one of many steps that must take place before any development can occur.

Dale’s letter mentions that the TEIR references the City of Ridgecrest General Plan but fails to refer to the Military Sustainability Element or the Military Influence Area.

“The purpose of the Military Sustainability Element is to provide the interconnection of issues related to military sustainment covered in other elements, such as the land use element and noise issues found in the health and safety element,” said the letter. “The Military Sustainability Element also reflects the city’s commitment to support the current future missions at NAWS China Lake.”

In order to prevent encroachment on the Navy base, any lodging, auditoriums, theaters or similar venues would have to incorporate construction methods to keep noise levels lower than 25 decibels.

Additionally any upward-facing lights “such as laser systems and flashing or strobing displays” would present a safety hazard to pilots. The letter suggested that the development adhere to International Dark Sky Association standards.

The letter also says that the TEIR does not take into consideration the potential of traffic backup on China Lake Boulevard near the front gate, an already congested area at the beginning and end of the work day.

At the time of the draft TEIR’s completion, the IWV Groundwater Authority was not yet formed.

The IWVGA is tasked with bringing the IWV groundwater basin to a sustainable level in adherence with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. While the report says the proposed casino will have a less-than-significant impact on the basin, “significant impact” will have to be better defined in the IWVGA’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

China Lake, the city and Kern County have an agreement with the China Lake Fire Department for fire services, an agreement that would ultimately need to include the tribal land as well.

“As NAWS China Lake Federal Fire can expect an increase in calls for mutual aid at the casino, negotiations on the intergovernmental agreement with the city and county would also need involvement from Navy Region Southwest to help ensure proper authorization,” said the letter.

The letter also clarifies that China Lake does not necessarily oppose the casino and will cooperate with the tribe to ensure compatible development and clarification of key concerns.

Concerns haven’t been the only focus of casino discussion. Casino proponents announced the release of a new economic and community impact analysis – something the city requested, but was never granted, years ago when discussions began.

The report, prepared by the Innovation Group of New Orleans, concludes that Phases I and II of the proposed project – casino, hotel, restaurants and entertainment venue – would result in a net economic gain for the city.

According to the report, payments to the city outlined in the city-tribal Municipal Services Agreement – a quarterly mitigation payment of $100,000 and annual “critical services” payments of $128,000 ($260,000 upon completion of Phase II) – are sufficient to address impacts from increased visitors.

“Moreover, the gains in tax revenues that will accrue to the city as a result of increased economic activity generated by the casino and its employees will further assist the city in filling current shortfalls in its provision of municipal services,” said the report.

Economic impacts of Phase I and II combined are estimated to result in 361 direct jobs within the area (designated as the city Ridgecrest and everywhere within one hour’s distance), 100 indirect jobs and 61 induced jobs.

“Based on prevailing commuting patterns and other data, it is estimated that the vast majority of the direct jobs will be held by Ridgecrest residents,” said the report. Jobs are expected to be filled by a combination of local unemployed workers, local outbound commuters, residents of neighboring areas and new residents.

The report asserts that research has dispelled the “substitution effect” of casinos and that they do little to impact local businesses, specifically mom and pop retail and restaurant businesses. The report cites a 2008 Dartmouth study that Atlantic City casinos actually encouraged economic growth.

In regard to impacts on housing and schools, the report said the project will bring an estimated 255 people to the area, and that the “small increase in local population will not have a substantial impact on local services, including the Sierra Sands Unified School District.”

However, the impact on SSUSD is another concern raised in Dale’s letter. “This in conjunction with the population growth rate stipulated in the TEIR places questions on available classroom space at each school, especially at the elementary-grade level where many classrooms are at capacity,” said the letter.

“The TEIR only references that the city will be compensated for the anticipated increase in class sizes. The SSUSD should be involved in negotiations of the Intergovern-mental Agreement as an interested party.”

Earlier this year Lt. Michael Deleon of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office,submitted comments to the TEIR saying that the payments in the MSA would not be sufficient to deal with an expected uptick in crime.

Deleon said he was told by Kings County representatives to expect an increase in alcohol- and drug-related crimes, sexual assaults, prostitution, robberies and vandalism, all of which would be exacerbated by the absence of a Ridgecrest jail. He estimated that public safety needs would increase the budget by as much as $950,000 annually.

But Innovation’s report concludes that a casino would see an increase in crime similar to that of any other business. According to a 2005 Purdue University study, statewide average costs borne by communities are less than 1 percent of gaming revenues.

“The payments that Trimbisha Shoshone Tribe have agreed to once the Ridgecrest Casino has opened are more than adequate to cover the cost of mitigation regarding community impacts,” said the report.

The report also says that the MSA is “more than sufficient” to defray increased fire calls, but does not mention the necessity of the intergovernmental agreement for use of federal fire services mentioned previously by Dale.

A major concern of casino opponents is a potential increase in gambling addiction. The report mentioned a 2009 study where Connecticut increased its number of gambling addiction clinics from one to 17, significantly reducing the number of problem and pathological gamblers.

But some still argue against bringing a development that would necessitate these clinics in the first place.

“I never thought I would find a place so peaceful like Ridgecrest in the state of California,” said Lorenzo Hernandez during a previous council meeting.

“When you come from Los Angeles to a town like Ridgecrest, one thing you really appreciate is the peace. I just plead that you reconsider voting for a casino because that will bring us a lot of problems.”

But several people said the risk of temptation just isn’t enough to shut down the project.

“I gamble every day – when I drive the 395, with my 401K and when I go home and buy my Powerball tickets,” said Stacy Jackson. “People are capable of policing themselves.”

She argued that to prevent the casino because of gambling temptation would be the same as shutting down liquor stores and removing the cigarettes from Walmart.

Critics of the report have noted that many of its cited sources are from the 1990s and 2000s, while more recent studies are available.

Others questioned whether Phase II of the project, which includes the additional restaurants and large entertainment venue, would really be ready three years down the road.

While the debate between the economic and social benefits and detriments of a proposed casinos goes on in various public forums, both the city and county have decided that weighing in on the TEIR or discussing things further to be premature until a state compact is reached. The developers also must undergo a National Environmental Protection Agency review.

Escrow for the $5.5-million, 29-acre land sale for the proposed project is scheduled to expire on Sunday, Oct. 28. The tribe has until then to complete the purchase or request for an extension from the Ridgecrest City Council.

The full economic and community impact analysis report is available at facebook.com/letridgecrestgrow. More information will appear in future editions of this newspaper.

Story First Published: 2018-10-26