To lure customers from doorbuster sales on Black Friday, Table Mountain Casino offered gamers five times their usual incentive points.
Not to be outdone, Chukchansi Gold Casino & Resort offered 10 times the points.
That kind of competition for gaming dollars at Indian casinos in the Valley could intensify if Indian casinos near Madera and Friant now on the drawing board are built.
The central San Joaquin Valley's six gaming tribes -- five with existing casinos and one with aspirations -- face an unsettled future. Some experts believe the Valley's population is not sufficiently large to sustain new and existing casinos, leading to oversaturation of the Indian gaming market. Another suggests a free-for-all approach to casino sites could be around the corner.
"We are to a point where expansion is growing the market as much as taking away from an existing one," said Mark Nichols, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno's Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gambling. "The time when you could open a casino and be the only one within 100 miles is dwindling."
The battle over plans to build a casino and hotel next to Highway 99 shows how lucrative tribes believe gambling can be -- and current conditions for the tribe that wants it show what life can be like without it.
The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians says they've jumped through all the regulatory hoops to build the complex, just north of Madera city limits. They say there's no suitable land for a casino on their tribal grounds in remote eastern Madera County, and the tribe needs casino revenues to lift members from poverty.
Price tag: $250 million. By comparison, the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold was projected to cost $150 million when it opened in summer 2003, prior to a later expansion.
The North Fork Rancheria's casino plan is the target of a statewide referendum, underwritten in part by its closest tribal competitors who fear that a casino on a major highway just north of Fresno will siphon off customers from their casinos near Friant and Coarsegold.
Tribal leaders of the North Fork Rancheria say gaming revenues will lift members out of poverty and provide economic self-sufficiency.
And the need is readily apparent in North Fork. On a winding one-lane road only recently paved, hundreds of tribal members live on 80 acres of Indian land held in trust for several tribal families, but not for the tribe collectively.
The hilly, rocky properties along Mission Road -- named for the Presbyterian Mission School built 100 years ago -- are strewn with old camping trailers and mobile homes that have given way to a scattering of small, newer houses paid for with federal grants or sweat equity from Self-Help Enterprises projects.
Many Mission Road homes sit below fire-scarred hills and are surrounded by Indian ruins. Behind Alvin McDonald's house is an ancient grinding stone where women crushed acorns for food. He's found bones, obsidian flakes -- from arrowheads -- and soapstone beads on his land.
Down the hill is a newer home built with grant money, but it's surrounded by mobile homes and trailers serving as housing.
"We still have a lot of work to do," said Paul Irwin, the tribe's housing director and a tribal member.
The tribe has built about 20 homes, along with a community center where children go for after-school learning and activities. The tribe helped pay for a county fire station and is building a welfare office near the old North Fork lumber mill that once employed most of the town before it closed 20 years ago.
Today, the tribe and the forest service are North Fork's largest employers, Irwin said. The tribe is banking on the Madera casino and tens of millions of dollars in potential annual revenues to create self-sufficiency for its nearly 2,000 members -- the fifth largest tribe in California.
With those new revenues, the North Fork Mono Indians can create jobs, add housing, and also provide millions of dollars yearly to Madera city and county governments, said tribe spokesman Charles Altekruse.
The casino next to Highway 99 will be an easy commute for many Mono if they choose to work in one of more than 1,500 casino jobs. About half the tribe lives in Fresno County or close to Madera. Another quarter lives near North Fork.
"This tribe has been incredibly industrious in scraping out federal grants for its citizens, but it's not enough," Altekruse said.
Critics say the North Fork Mono have plenty of property to build on near the town.
In addition to its 80 hilly acres on Mission Road, the tribe has 61 acres closer to North Fork under contract for housing with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Table Mountain Rancheria's lawyer, Dan Casas, suggests the tribe could use the old lumber mill site operated by the North Fork Community Development Council. But building a casino there would require a massive cleanup since the mill is an Environmental Protection Agency "brownfield" site, Irwin of the North Fork tribe said.
The North Fork Mono did try for a casino closer to home, said former Congressman Rick Lehman, North Fork Rancheria's lobbyist in Sacramento. But the request 13 years ago to use the 80 acres on Mission Road was denied because the federal government had ceded ownership of the land to a handful of tribal families, it rests along a scenic byway, is near one of the Sierra's last free-flowing streams and is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land.
There is legal provision to build casinos off-reservation, Lehman said. He was on a congressional committee that passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 when rules for "off-reservation" gaming -- known as the "two-part determination" that requires federal and state approval -- were created.
"There were some tribes that were so disadvantaged by federal decisions that they had no land," Lehman said. "We thought there ought to be some way for them ... so we set up this two-part process that was pretty tough."
The North Fork Mono was the second tribe in California and sixth in the nation to get a casino approved under the "two-part determination."
The tribe showed that it had ancestral ties to the site along Highway 99, even though it is not part of the tribal ground. The site gained federal and state approval. In giving his OK, Gov. Jerry Brown said the federal process was "extremely thorough," took seven years and generated hundreds of comments.
He also said a large tribal population will directly benefit from the North Fork Rancheria's casino.
The North Fork compact guarantees that revenues from the casino will be shared directly with Humboldt County's Wiyot Tribe, which agreed to forgo gaming on its own lands that include environmentally sensitive areas.
Brown's office said the governor believes the North Fork compact complies with Proposition 1A, which voters approved in 2000 and allows gaming machines on tribal grounds.
Other casinos on tap
North Fork's is not the only casino in the works. Big Sandy Rancheria of Western Mono Indians is moving forward on plans to move its tiny Mono Wind Casino from Auberry to a 48-acre site next to Table Mountain Rancheria in Friant.
The tribe isn't sitting idle while waiting to make that dream a reality. Kerry Smith, the casino general manager, said Mono Wind will add new slot machines in February.
On a recent weekday afternoon, only a few players plied the Mono Wind slots. The new machines should add visitors and energy to the 10,000-square-foot casino, Smith said.
But ultimately, the plan is to move 12 miles down the hill, building a new 70,000-square-foot Mono Wind casino and 221-room hotel near Table Mountain Casino. Mono Wind will expand to 2,000 slot machines and between 30 and 40 table games, about the same number as Table Mountain.
Elizabeth Kipp, Big Sandy Rancheria tribal chairwoman, estimates the project will cost $100 million to $150 million.
The time frame for construction will depend on a federal decision about the project's environmental document, but Kipp is hopeful federal approval will come within a year from now, and the hotel and casino can be built in a year to 18 months after that.
Even though the site is not part of the rancheria, Kipp maintains it's not off-reservation because a tribe member owned the property and was willing to sell it to the tribe.
A casino and hotel operator has signed a deal with the tribe but can't be identified now because of nondisclosure agreements, Kipp said.
Casas, Table Mountain Rancheria's lawyer, said tribal officials support Big Sandy Rancheria's right to game -- but not right next door.
Table Mountain officials have kept their public arguments against Mono Wind's designs strictly to cultural and environmental concerns. They say the land is archaeologically sensitive and too dry.
A 2011 letter from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Bureau of Indian Affairs said that Table Mountain Rancheria considers the site "critical to their heritage."
Big Sandy acknowledges that water at the site is not available in large enough volume to support the project. Table Mountain says Big Sandy's plans to truck in water from eight miles away, along winding roads, should be a deal-killer. Casas said Big Sandy needs to address air quality issues and traffic in the environmental report.
Of course, Table Mountain officials might also be worried about competition.
They shouldn't be, said Kenneth Hansen, an associate professor in public administration at Fresno State who co-authored a book on Indian gaming. Table Mountain could benefit from Mono Wind's hotel, because more players could wind up at both venues, he said.
"You get sort of a gaming complex," Hansen said. "Las Vegas was never hurt by someone opening another casino. People can gamble at Table Mountain and stay at Mono Wind."
Tule and Tachi
Meanwhile, another Valley tribe is considering relocating its casino and expanding its operations. Eagle Mountain Casino, operated by the Tule River Indians, is eyeing a 40-acre site it owns near Porterville Municipal Airport for a new casino and hotel, said Tom Stewart, the casino's general manager.
Because the existing 100,000-square-foot casino is on the Tule River Indian Reservation 25 minutes east of Porterville at the end of a narrow, winding road, the casino brings in gamblers by shuttle bus. A casino next to the airport would be on a main highway and closer to population centers.
The land near the airport is not in federal trust -- a requirement for a casino's site. But tribal Chairman Neil Peyron said he is confident that the Department of the Interior will approve an application, because "we have ancestral ties" to the site. The tribe did consider moving the casino next to Highway 99 but decided against it because officials believe it would be too difficult to get federal and state agreement for the relocation.
Stewart said the tribe will submit an application for a new casino next to the airport when it's assured all needed state and federal approvals can be obtained.
The Porterville site, near Highway 65, will be easier for customers from Tulare and Kern counties to reach compared to the existing casino, Stewart said.
Unlike some casinos in California, there's no hotel at Eagle Mountain. Stewart said the Porterville area needs more hotel rooms so the tribe might first build a hotel and event center at the airport site and put up the new casino later -- allowing it to get moving before the federal trust issue is cleared.
"It's being worked on," Stewart said. "We're in the process of starting the due diligence" to verify that the project would succeed financially and overcome legal obstacles, he said.
Tachi Palace, the casino, 255-room hotel and event center near Lemoore that traces its roots to a bingo hall that opened in 1983, has no plans to expand off-reservation, said Santa Rosa Rancheria tribal chairman Ruben Barrios.
But tribal government understands that other tribes need to consider off-reservation casinos, he said.
"We will not stand in the way of any tribe working on economic development," he said.
But Eagle Mountain and Tachi Palace might have competition on their southern flank someday.
The recently re-established Tejon tribe in Kern County is in the early stages of considering a casino where Interstate 5 and Highway 99 meet about 25 miles south of Bakersfield.
Will all the casino activity result in an oversaturated Indian gaming market in the Valley?
A California casino's market area is usually about an hour's drive from the gambler's home, which means Table Mountain, Chukchansi Gold, Mono Wind, Tachi Palace and Eagle Mountain target gamblers from Fresno, Madera, Merced, Mariposa, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties.
The casinos offer about 7,600 slot machines and 150 table games.
The North Fork Rancheria project and a relocated Mono Wind Casino would add nearly 50% more slot machines and gaming tables in the Valley market.
And they would also add to the totals in California, already the nation's largest market for Indian gaming, which has 11% of all gaming nationwide. Only Nevada claims a larger piece of the nation's total gambling market, according to Casino City's Indian Gaming Industry Report.
Southern California, with 22 million residents, is home to 22 Indian casinos with 36,100 slot machines -- one for every 610 residents -- and 1,236 gaming tables -- one for every 17,800 residents.
By comparison, the gaming market that stretches from Bakersfield to Merced has a population of 2.7 million. Today, the five casinos offer 7,590 slots -- one for every 352 people -- and 151 tables -- one for every 17,880 residents.
The projects planned by the Big Sandy and North Fork rancherias would add 4,000 slot machines and 90 table games, lowering the ratios to one slot machine for every 240 people and one table for every 11,203.
"Existing operations may very well get hurt," said I. Nelson Rose, a Whittier College professor who operates the website gamblingandthelaw.com. "The pie will get bigger, but not big enough for everyone to increase the amount they are getting."
A study commissioned by Chukchansi's tribal council forecast at least a 38% drop in Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino's profits if the North Fork Rancheria project is built along Highway 99. Experts estimate that the Chukchansi resort brings in about $100 million in annual revenue.
Projections for the Madera casino indicate annual net revenues of $53.8 million by its seventh year.
Hansen, the Fresno State associate professor and co-author of the book "The New Politics of Indian Gaming," said the study numbers may be true.
"I think you might have an oversaturated market," he said. "One key difference between here, Southern California and the Bay Area is that this is a much poorer area and people here don't have disposable income. Then there is just sort of a finite population you can draw from."
The proposed Madera casino looms as a financial threat to Fresno-area casinos -- and they're fighting back.
Opponents have spent nearly $2.9 million to get a statewide referendum on the November 2014 ballot to nullify the North Fork state tribal compact by asking voters to oppose gambling on what is described as "off-reservation land." The campaign's financial backers include Table Mountain Rancheria, which contributed more than $1.4 million, and three firms backing the restructured financing of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino that donated about $1.4 million, according to state financial disclosure documents. The Chukchansi tribe donated $25,000. Even the Club One Casino card room in Fresno contributed $15,000, state documents show.
They argue that North Fork Mono Indians never lived on the Madera site and have no right to build a casino there.
Even though the project has been green-lighted by the state and federal governments, they say it violates Proposition 1A, approved by voters in 2000, to allow slot machines and card games only on reservations and rancherias.
Prop. 1A allowed 57 tribes with gaming compacts to build casinos on their lands as long as the federal government supported a project.
Table Mountain and Chukchansi, two of the 57 tribes, argue that the North Fork project violates what voters approved 13 years ago.
"The tribal message from our perspective was that we made a promise," Table Mountain attorney Casas said. "Some of the arguments against Prop. 1A was if you pass it, (Indian casinos) would not be limited to tribal land. They would move to more urban and lucrative areas."
With approval of the Madera site, "the critics' arguments ... came true," he said.
Two Chukchansi officials from two discordant political factions have found one thing to agree on: approval of the Madera project will encourage other tribes to find lucrative sites that have little connection to their ancestry.
"Indians who built casinos on their land are the ones who will be in bad shape," said Reggie Lewis, chairman of one faction.
"It will set a precedent," said Nancy Ayala, chairwoman of the other faction. "Tribes have acquired property for when this happens."
The end result could be huge losses for Chukchansi, not just in revenue. The Madera casino could wind up hiring Chukchansi casino employees, many of whom live closer to the Madera site than to Coarsegold, she said.
Other than Table Mountain and Chukchansi, no other local tribes oppose the North Fork plan. The tribes not opposing North Fork's project are members of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, which in 2008 "voted to oppose "any action, referendum or otherwise, which attacks or attempt to nullify any tribal-state compact which has been ratified by the Legislature." Table Mountain wasn't a member of CNIGA in 2008 but is now.
Because of Chukchansi's political discord and $250 million debt, its casino appears to be the most vulnerable to the challenges a new player like North Fork would create, said Fresno State's Hansen.
The other possibility is that tribes will leave their ancestral homelands and build casinos on land they consider more likely to generate revenue and where they can prove a tribal connection, said Casas, Table Mountain's lawyer. Indians roamed across California, he said, so Indian casinos can go anywhere under the same rules that allowed North Fork to move to Madera.
Investors told the Table Mountain tribe that they have land for a casino near Interstate 5 and Highway 152, west of Los Banos. But, Casas said, the tribe, descendants of Yokuts and Mono Indians, has no intention of leaving Friant.
However, if referendum voters next year support North Fork's project, it will change the game for locating casinos.
Said Casas, "If they are OK with North Fork, it won't be, 'Where can I put a casino?' It will be, 'Where do I want to put a casino?' "