Inside the Capitol

Saturday, August 21, 2004

A Casino in Every County

SANTA FE – At the rate we’re going, we’ll have a casino in every county by the end of the decade. If you don’t believe it, take a look at what is going down on the Indian gaming front.
Jemez Pueblo and a big-time developer, who also happens to be a Friend of Bill (Richardson), are looking at 120 acres just north of Anthony, NM/TX, for a huge casino, complete with hotels, restaurants, shopping venues and an RV park.
Nambe Pueblo is voting on whether to open a Circus Circus family-oriented casino, sandwiched between Pojoaque’s Cities of Gold Casino and Tesuque’s Camel Rock Casino.
And despite Pojoaque Pueblo’s longstanding battle with Attorney General Patricia Madrid over payment to the state of money owed under past and present revenue-sharing agreements, the reopening of Santa Fe Downs (and Casino) becomes ever more likely.
Each of these three developments, if approved, contains an interesting twist that is sure to lead to further expansion of gambling across the state.
Jemez Pueblo’s plan is the scariest. It involves the pueblo’s purchase of land nearly 300 miles south of its reservation. Before it can throw up a casino, it must convince the federal Interior secretary to declare it trust land. If Secretary Gail Norton approves, Gov. Bill Richardson can veto it.
Such requests usually aren’t approved, because they typically involve an isolated reservation trying to move into an urban area. In this case Jemez Pueblo, which is isolated 30 miles off Interstate 25, wants to take advantage of the lack of any casinos along Interstate 10 in New Mexico.
The Jemez business plan is well thought out. Its proposition is to locate a casino in one of the state’s most poverty-stricken areas, not far from the Mexican border. It wouldn’t mean any jobs for pueblo members, but it projects up to 1,000 jobs for an area of tremendously high unemployment.
Communities in the area are now surveying their residents to determine support for the proposal. If the support is there, Secretary Norton may approve. Gov. Richardson, always interested in economic development, seems very likely to go along.
And it doesn’t hurt that the developer, Gerald Peters of Santa Fe, was one of his biggest campaign contributors, who then lost out to R. D. Hubbard of Ruidoso for approval to run the Hobbs racetrack.
If the Jemez proposal is approved, expect other isolated pueblos to look for likely spots to attract tourists and gamblers from just across our state lines.
Nambe Pueblo is very close to busy U.S. 285, between Santa Fe and Espanola, but not close enough to have access. So eight years ago, when then-Gov. Gary Johnson was signing gaming compacts with any pueblo or tribe that wanted one, Nambe signed a compact and then entered into negotiations with Pojoaque Pueblo for a land trade that would give it highway frontage.
That deal required Nambe to forego building a casino for eight years. It’s now been eight years. Approval by pueblo residents seems likely since it is part of a long-range plan. And since it worked for Nambe, other pueblos may try their own land swaps.
Pojoaque, the biggest entrepreneur of all the pueblos, bought the struggling Santa Fe Downs racetrack in the late ‘90s and closed it the next year. The strategy was to eliminate competition for the gambling dollar. Since then, race tracks have been authorized slot machines by the state Legislature.
Pojoaque now sees the opportunity to reopen racing, at no profit, in return for having slot machines. Unless the pueblo gets the track declared trust land, which isn’t likely, it will have to give the state 25 percent of its take rather than eight percent, but that is feasible.
And if Pojoaque is successful, there are other abandoned racetracks around the state. And soon New Mexico will have gambling spots all along its borders, just as it did in the late ‘40s. Only these will be legal.


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