Inside the Capitol

Sunday, October 10, 2004

A Casino on Every Corner?

SANTA FE “A casino in every county.” That’s what this column predicted six weeks ago when Jemez Pueblo announced a plan to open a casino almost 300 miles to the south on the Texas border.
I caught some static for that. Some readers called me an alarmist and named counties they thought would never would put up with such a thing. I’ll admit to some hyperbole in the statement, although another commentator has now gone me one better by predicting a casino on every corner.
There are many reasons that New Mexico can become oversaturated with casinos. The surest way is to let just one tribe or pueblo set up shop off its reservation. The U.S. secretary of the Interior has to approve the arrangement and has done so at times in the past. The Navajo Nation has outlying areas settled by members who did not make it all the way to the reservation during the long walk back following their imprisonment near Fort Sumner in the 1860s. And horse tracks are now in the casino business.
Longtime readers of this column will remember that I originally said even one casino was too many when the Indian gaming discussions first started as a result of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed by Congress in 1988.
But my argument did not prevail and now we are looking at 14 of the 19 pueblos with casinos, plus both Apache tribes. In addition, the Navajo Nation is trying it on a pilot basis, with the Route 66 Casino, just west of Albuquerque on Navajo trust land.
If that goes well, that field test could open up many locations on the sprawling Navajo Nation and in the scattered “checkerboard” areas to the east. The Navajos haven’t been anxious to open themselves to gambling, but the promise of economic opportunity for their many struggling outposts may appear their only way out.
And now the horse tracks have casinos so they won’t be destroyed by Indian gaming. Nothing could have renewed an interest in racing any more than letting tracks put in slot machines. Except that, for obvious reasons, the horse tracks are doing everything they can to cut back on racing days, because that’s not where they make their money.
That has horse breeders upset, but their problem is about to be solved by an explosion in the number of tracks. After hard times hit horse tracks in the 1980s and early 1990s, Sunland Park, Ruidoso Downs and Albuquerque Downs were the only tracks left standing. Then Sun Ray at Farmington came along to take advantage of visitors from the Four Corners area and the law that allowed them to put in slot machines.
Next came Zia Park at Hobbs, in the southeast corner of the state. Now we’re hearing about Racing at Raton reviving the old La Mesa Park tradition in the northeastern corner of New Mexico, pulling in money from four neighboring states in that area.
And of course, there is Santa Fe Downs, purchased by Pojoaque Pueblo in 1996 and closed the next year to eliminate competition with its Cities of Gold Casino. Pojoaque now has the money and inclination to reopen the track, with casino, naturally.
The only hitch is settling a court suit with Attorney General Patricia Madrid over outstanding revenue-sharing payments owed the state. And there’s the problem of getting state Racing Commission approval for another track.
At the moment there is support for waiting a year or two to see how the Hobbs track does, but that isn’t discouraging people in Pojoaque, Raton and even Tucumcari from some serious consideration.
Meanwhile Nambe Pueblo voted last week to snuggle a casino in between the nearby Pojoaque and Tesuque casinos. That’s three casinos in a six-mile stretch of US 84-285, between Santa Fe and Espanola. It soon may resemble the Las Vegas Strip.
And we don’t have room to talk about a fascinating new development not being discussed openly yet that could mushroom the number of Indian casinos even more.


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