Struggles of Chukchansi tribe, Fresno Grizzlies owner haunt $1 million check ceremony

The Fresno BeeDecember 6, 2013 

Chukchansi Park in August 2013.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — THE FRESNO BEE Buy Photo

Reassurance was the name of the game as top officials of the Fresno Grizzlies and the Chukchansi tribe met on Friday to exchange a hefty check.

But it was hard not to sense the widespread instability at the root of the brief event at Chukchansi Park.

Grizzlies President Chris Cummings and Nancy Ayala, council chairwoman of the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, held a ceremonial check signifying the tribe's full payment of this year's naming-rights fee at the downtown stadium.

The check was symbolic -- the tribe covered the $1 million bill with two separate payments about a month ago.

Ayala said the tribe considers it "an honor" to do business with the Grizzlies and the community.

Cummings said the team is "looking forward to keeping this relationship going as long as baseball exists."

The back story, though, isn't quite as cheery.

The tribe, which operates the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino near Coarsegold, is in the middle of a bitter internal fight for political control. The tribe usually pays its stadium naming rights fee with a single check in September.

But, tribal spokesman David Leibowitz said, "the political struggle has woven it's way into a set of economic difficulties."

Tribal leaders, Leibowitz said, "continue to push forward."

As if a civil war weren't enough, the tribe also is worried about even more competition in a regional Indian gaming industry in which location has always been paramount.

The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians wants to build a casino with 2,000 slot machines and 40 gaming tables on 305 acres along Highway 99 north of Madera. The project faces a state referendum on the November 2014 ballot.

Officials of Fresno Baseball Club LLC, which owns the Grizzlies, have had their own cash-flow problems since they and the tribe signed a 15-year, $1 million-a-year naming rights deal in 2006.

The team seems to lose at least $1 million a year, even after a revision of its lease at the city-owned stadium knocked the annual rent about in half to the $750,000 range. City Hall in November said the Grizzlies owed about $745,000, most for unpaid rent. Cummings at the time disputed the bill's size, but didn't dispute being in arrears.

These trend lines are not encouraging.

The tribe has money challenges that caused a first-ever delay in its $1 million naming-rights payment. The Grizzlies have money challenges even when they get the $1 million on time.

Cummings alluded to this dynamic at Friday's event.

"One of the reasons that baseball exists in Fresno is the relationship with the folks up in Chukchansi," Cummings said. "Without that type of support, it would be very difficult for the team to operate."

And then there is City Hall.

The city closed the books on the 2013 fiscal year and balanced the 2013-2014 budget only with a big loan from the water department and some optimistic guesses on union contract concessions that have yet to materialize. Wall Street continues to view Fresno's financial picture as only marginally brighter than those in Detroit and Stockton -- two cities that declared bankruptcy.

The city faces an annual bill on stadium construction bonds of about $3.4 million. City officials need all they can get from the Grizzlies. They also can't afford to lose the Grizzlies to another city.

The Grizzlies, even with the rent break, think they pay way too much compared to other Minor League teams.

Ayala on Friday sidestepped questions on whether the tribe has buyer's remorse on the naming rights deal and might ask the Grizzlies to renegotiate.

Leibowitz said the naming rights issue "is about value." He said the tribe is committed to its deal with the Grizzlies. He said the tribe will stick with the deal "as long as it delivers value."

Cummings also sidestepped questions about whether a big chunk of that $1 million will soon find its way to City Hall.

"I've been here since 2005," Cummings said. "Every penny that has been owed to the city has been paid to the city. I will readily admit that the payments are not always on time. As a matter of fact, generally they aren't because it is a struggle.

"But every penny that has been owed to the city has been paid."

The reporter can be reached at ghostetter@fresnobee.com or at (559) 441-6272.

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