Casino land sale terminated

Council votes 5-0 to end agreement after escrow expires without payment

Casino land sale terminatedMembers of the sparsely populated council chambers applaud the vote to terminate the casino land sale agreement — Photo by Laura Austin

------

By BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

In a unanimous vote, the Ridgecrest city council decided Wednesday to terminate the purchase and sale agreement of land intended for an Indian gaming casino. The Municipal Services Agreement between the Timbisha-Shoshone Tribe and the city still stands, but casino developers will need to find a new site — be it within city limits or in county property.

The proposed agreement was to sell roughly 26 acres of successor agency land in the Ridgecrest Business Park, directly south of the front gate to the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, for $5.5 million. Half of the funds were to be paid to the co-owner China Lake Properties, while the other half would be split among the city, county, school district and other agencies — the city receiving probably less than five percent.

The original sale was approved in October 2016, with escrow set to expire after one year. The buyer paid some $113,000 to extend escrow for another year while waiting for environmental impact reports, feasibility studies and movement from the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs to see whether the land could even be taken into trust.

By the end of the second year, no other funds were deposited. At that point the agreement allowed for either the buyer or the seller to choose to terminate the sale.

Then Timbisha-Shoshone Tribal Chair George Gholson and casino developers had plans for the federal government to take the land into trust as Indian reservation land for the operation of a 25,000-square-foot casino, retail shop, restaurant and lounge with potential plans to add hotels and an entertainment complex down the road.

The casino saw a surge of local support, particularly on social media, speculating that the development would help usher in tourism and other economic opportunities. The group referred to itself as “Let Ridgcrest Grow.” Proponents for the casino cited potential jobs, increased tourist spending and mitigation payments from the tribe as economic boons to the community.

Others thought the projected economic benefits of a casino were overblown by developers while many said a casino would bring “the displeasure of God on our community.” Most of the opponents, and some supporters, objected to the development’s location. This “CasiNO” group had a strong turnout at this week’s council meeting with the option to terminate the sale on the table.

“I say kill the damn thing,” said Dave Matthews during public comment. Applause throughout the council chambers suggested that most members of the public present at the meeting felt the same way.

Several more residents voiced their support of terminating the sale on the grounds that the casino has been a divisive topic in our community for the last two years.

Chip Holloway read a letter during public comment from Eric Bruen, CEO of Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union, which is located in the same business park. In the letter Bruen said he offered no opinion on terminating the escrow, but suggested a plan moving forward.

“We want to clearly state our interest in negotiating for the purchase of … 1.4 acres of bare land directly east of our existing property,” said the letter.

“We approached the city on numerous occasions prior to the land sale in regards to the property and were unable to reach an effective negotiation. We are willing to negotiate in good faith and hopefully continue to grow our business in partnership with the city of Ridgecrest.”

Member of the public Skip Gorman also commented – saying he remained ambivalent about the casino until he felt the topic was used to attack Gholson’s character.

“I’d like to know the details,” he said. “Why? Why would Global Investment Enterprise not be forthcoming with the money at the proper time? Who discouraged this entire thing?”

City Attorney Lloyd Pilchen said that the city had no information and that he would have to ask the buyer. At press time, the News Review hadn’t had the opportunity to solicit comments from the buyer or developers.

Mayor Pro Tem Lindsey Stephens made a motion to terminate the agreement, and the motion was seconded by Vice Mayor Wallace Martin. Both Stephens and Martin, as well as new Councilmember Scott Hayman, have historically expressed strong opposition to the casino project.

While Mayor Peggy Breeden and Councilmember Mike Mower have spoken highly of the project in the past, they ultimately voted to terminate the sale, making the vote unanimous.

The tribal-city MSA remains valid until 2036, giving casino developers the option of seeking other property for a development. See future editions of the News Review for updates.

Story First Published: 2018-12-21