In June 2009, Raymond “Chucky” Hitchcock got to do something he’d been waiting for his entire life: He finally got to tick the box labeled “Native American” next to his name on a government form. “Until then, I was just considered ‘Other’ or ‘White’ or ‘Caucasian,’” he says. “But I couldn’t say I was Native American because I wasn’t part of a federally-recognized tribe.”
Hitchcock, who was born and raised in Carmichael, first got involved with the Wilton Rancheria tribe’s fight for federal recognition. That was restored in 2009, 45 years after being revoked. Then, he started going to tribal council meetings to help build a government, until he eventually won a seat on the council. Now, Hitchcock is the chairman and CEO of the tribe and oversees its economic development.
The politics of this small tribe — the only federally-recognized one in Sacramento County and consisting of only a few hundred members — are inextricably intertwined with the City of Elk Grove’s, thanks in large part to its plans to build a $500 million casino and resort on 36 acres in the southernmost area of the city, at the junction of Grant Line Road and Highway 99.
“We’ve struggled for so many years, and Native American history is a jaded past, but we’re given a golden opportunity now,” Hitchcock says. The project is so important to him that he’s relinquished management of the countertop business he’s run for more than 20 years to his partner and is now wholly focused on the casino and resort because, as he says, “The job we do now will hopefully reverberate through generations to come.”
The proposal for the project includes a 608,756-square-foot hospitality and entertainment facility, a 302-room hotel with a pool and spa; more than 47,600-square-feet of convention center space, six restaurants and bars and a 110,260-square-foot gaming floor. The larger 300 acres on which the complex will be located is known as Lent Ranch. A partially built mall, on a parcel of 99 acres, has been abandoned since the economic crash of 2008. The infrastructure and several frames of buildings were left behind and so, the promised commercial development is inexorably tied to the casino.
Building an entertainment complex of this size was never going to be easy. Opponents of the casino project have a myriad of allegations — from impacts on crime and traffic to whispers of a federal-level plot to deceive the citizens of Elk Grove. There’s also the ever-present opposition from shadowy interest groups — other card rooms and local casinos who don’t want to share their patrons.
The project would be a boon for the tribe, members say, enabling them to pursue additional health care services and housing. Proponents also say the project would catalyze development activity on roughly 900 acres of land surrounding the project. While the project has support from city officials, some residents and special interest groups continue their attempts to stall it. Regardless, plans for the casino move forward.
Tied To The Land
Perhaps one of the most unique things about the casino is its proposed proximity to the developed area of Elk Grove and the potential of the surrounding area. Most Indian casinos are not built within big city limits, says Susan Jensen, executive director for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. Consider Thunder Valley Resort and Casino when it was first built in 2003 in an unincorporated portion of Placer County. Not much was around then — though nearby Rocklin and Roseville were experiencing a development boom and Cache Creek Casino, in Brooks, is considerably rural.
Tribes often build in underdeveloped areas, Jensen says, usually because their reservations are historically rural. But there’s also often too much opposition from cities and citizens when a large casino is built near existing residential properties.
There is one immediate benefit though, to both the City of Elk Grove and the Wilton tribe, if they do build a casino at the abandoned mall site. Elk Grove City Councilman Pat Hume says that the surrounding area is already zoned for commercial use, but area construction stalled when the mall was abandoned in 2008.
The 900-plus acres of former farmland is ripe for development, Hume says. Directly to the north of the proposed site is a Kaiser Permanente facility, and next to it are the southernmost of Elk Grove’s residential properties — the nearest homes are less than a mile away from Wilton’s land. Directly across Highway 99, to the east of the site, is light industrial property.
The City hopes to attract offices and other commercial development, once the casino and mall are in place, to draw crowds and capital. The Wilton Rancheria casino could be the catalyst to expand Elk Grove’s sphere of influence almost all the way to the Cosumnes River.
Mike Cattuzzo is a senior vice president with the Sacramento office of commercial real estate brokerage firm, Cushman Wakefield. The company doesn’t own any parcels on Lent Ranch, but Cattuzzo is familiar with the project and says the casino will be the motivating factor for many developers. “The mall has been dead for many years, and it’s been a hindrance,” he says. “It’s just the perception that it’s not a strong market down there — if it had been, then the mall would have been a success.” But with the casino and new mall going in, there’s “a lot of new enthusiasm for that site,” he says.
Cattuzzo thinks residential real estate around the area will see an impact first. “Once the casino is in, that will drive jobs and a need for housing. As more housing gets developed, you’re going to see more retail.” The casino was a “great coup” for the city, he says, but development in south Elk Grove entirely depends on the casino and mall finally being developed.
Councilman Hume says that the City and the Council recognize that the final say in whether or not the casino gets built is not theirs to make. “It’s a federal decision and a state decision. They don’t require any permission from the City,” he says. “I would say that the Council is cognizant of the potential economic boom and of the jobs creation and the construction.” There’s obviously a lot of benefit to the surrounding area, he says, regardless of whether or not that area is residential or commercial. “I think generally, for the health of the city, we see more positives than negatives.”
In 2012, in partnership with their developer, Boyd Gaming of Las Vegas, the tribe began looking at several sites in Galt and Elk Grove. They ultimately decided to buy land on the site of the abandoned mall in south Elk Grove, from the Howard Hughes Corporation, in January 2017 for $36 million.
Cheryl Schmit, director of Stand Up For California, is a vocal opponent of Wilton Rancheria’s casino project, and several other planned Native American casinos in Northern California. She has attended local Council meetings to make official complaints (despite living 40 miles away in Penryn, in Placer County). Schmit says Stand Up is acting as a resource and adviser to the five Elk Grove residents who are currently bringing a lawsuit against the City of Elk Grove and the Howard Hughes Corporation for various alleged breaches, most significantly of a 2014 development agreement.
“The [original] development agreement says nothing but a shopping mall can be there, so the City is in breach of that agreement because now they’re going to put something else there,” Schmit says. The group contends that the City of Elk Grove and the Wilton Rancheria tribe colluded with one another to deceive the public in choosing the former mall site for their casino and resort.
A petition circulated in late 2016 gathered some 14,000 signatures, nearly forcing the City to hold a special referendum regarding the development agreement. Several hundred signatories ultimately asked to be removed from the petition, once it was discovered that a local card room banker (Knighted Ventures, of Emeryville, who bankrolls Capital Casino and Parkwest Casino Lotus in Sacramento) was the financial backer. “People felt they’d been duped,” Hume says. The Wilton Rancheria land is exempt from development agreements now that it’s in a federal trust.
Opposition to the project — mostly Schmit — says that until the land trust agreement is printed in the federal register (meaning the federal process isn’t quite complete), the state cannot finish negotiations with the Wilton tribe for a gaming compact, which they must have in place before construction can start.
“It’s outside money playing in Elk Grove politics and I don’t really take it very seriously,” says Councilman Hume, who is strongly in favor of the casino. “They’re just trying to protect their bottom line and they’re trying certainly to impact the tribe’s future, but also the future of the City of Elk Grove.”
Jensen says the opposition from other gaming facilities stems from a fear of competition. “They don’t want a tribe to come in and take away their business, and I think you see it — they fight other card rooms, they fight tribal casinos, they fight anyone who’s going to take away any of their share. But the bottom line is tribes have the sovereign right to have gaming on their land,” she says.
What Comes Next
If you drive out now on Highway 99 to Grant Line Road, you won’t see much. There’s a large highway overpass, built more than a decade ago to accommodate a non-existent level of traffic. Surrounding the full 99 acres of the former mall site is a simple chain-link fence, with security guards patrolling the abandoned, half-built frames and roofs.
Until the gaming compact has been secured, the fate of those 36 acres is in limbo. It technically belongs to the tribe, but legally, a crucial step is still missing. Hitchcock declined to comment on whether or not the necessary gaming compact negotiations with the state were taking place or when they might be finalized, and also declined to pinpoint a potential year for the opening of the casino and resort.
If or when it is built, the casino stands to be an economic powerhouse for the area — and not just in catalyzing the surrounding development. “The Social and Economic Impact of Native American Casinos,” a 2002 research paper commissioned by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the economic climate around the large, Native American-run casino-resorts changed dramatically: The authors found that young adults moving back to reservations caused an 11.5 percent population increase, adult employment increased by 26 percent and there was a 14 percent decline in the number of working poor in and around the reservation. “In counties with or near a casino,” the report states, “the employment-to-population ratio has increased and mortality has declined.”
Also, Native American tribes give back, says Jensen, of CNIGA. In 2014, their 31 member tribes contributed $57.9 million in charitable contributions just in cash donations, and to mostly local nonprofits or charities, according to Jensen. That doesn’t include time spent in volunteerism, she says. Much of this is due to a strong sense of community, Jensen adds, but also because most tribes have dealt with poverty and hunger for generations — they know what it’s like to go without.
“I feel like [this is] what I’m supposed to be doing right now,” Hitchcock says of his work to bring the casino and resort to life. “I can’t really fathom what that really means, it just feels like I’m doing the right thing. I’ve had to struggle with the fact that I’ve probably let my business suffer, to an extent.”
According to the 2016 memo of understanding between Wilton Rancheria and the City of Elk Grove, the tribe will have total control over security, enforcement and infrastructure on their own land. They will also pay out close to $200 million over 20 years to Elk Grove and the County of Sacramento for police, fire, roadway maintenance, community benefits and other social services on reservation land and surrounding areas. Of that total sum, $56 million will go to a discretionary fund controlled by the City of Elk Grove, and more than $40 million to a discretionary fund controlled by Sacramento County, Hitchcock says. The casino and resort would employ an estimated 1,750 people and create 1,600 construction jobs. That would make Wilton Rancheria one of the largest employers in the city, behind Apple and the Elk Grove Unified School District.
The casino would be a huge economic catalyst for the tribe, Hitchcock says, because now they can fund what is really important to them: “We can now do an elder center, we can do a medical dental center, we can purchase other properties where we’re able to do our own housing project,” Hitchcock says. Wilton tribe members who currently use Elk Grove shelters and food banks will have a greater likelihood of upward mobility, and future generations can be donors instead of clients. He also says it will enable the tribe to provide scholarships and educational opportunities, in a community that can count its college graduates on their fingers.
“I feel like I’m having a positive effect and I’m making something,” Hitchcock says, stumbling a bit as he gathers his thoughts,“that I’m a part of something that’s bigger than myself.”