The Tule River Indian tribe plans to relocate Eagle Mountain casino to an off-reservation site in Porterville that is easier to get to.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs announced it has started an environmental review process to bring the property into federal trust, one of several steps required for the move to take place.
The proposed casino would be next to the Porterville airport on 40 acres the tribe has owned for 25 years.
The $180 million casino project would include a 250-room hotel; 29,000 square feet of convention space, banquet hall and meeting space; sports bar, restaurant, buffet and food court; entertainment lounge; and 1,700-seat entertainment center.
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“We truly believe this relocation will benefit Porterville, Tulare County and the tribe by providing hundreds of new jobs while addressing existing water and traffic concerns,” Tule River Tribe chairman Neil Peyron said.
Moving the casino will ease the reservation’s water shortage, he said. There is a moratorium on development at the reservation southeast of Porterville because of water supply problems similar to what has been happening in East Porterville, where wells have gone dry in the drought, he said.
“If we can get the casino moved, we can free up the water,” he said.
We truly believe this relocation will benefit Porterville, Tulare County and the tribe by providing hundreds of new jobs while addressing existing water and traffic concerns.
Neil Peyron, Tule River Tribe chairman
The Porterville site, 1 mile south of Highway 190, can handle more traffic than the current location that is reached by driving a winding road into the mountains.
The new casino also would generate more revenue to support tribal operations such as social services, the elder center and public safety department, he said.
Eagle Mountain employs 510 people, and the new casino would double that number. Additionally, the construction phase would create hundreds of jobs, the tribe said.
The tribe has 1,847 members. About 75 are employed at the casino.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs will analyze the potential environmental impacts on local governments and neighboring tribal governments.
The secretary of the interior and the governor of California must approve the move, Peyron said.
The environmental review could take 18 months and construction could begin after that, Peyron said. But it’s uncertain when all the needed approvals will be secured.
Tulare County has not taken a formal position on the casino relocation but will establish a committee to review the proposal, said Tulare County Board of Supervisors chairman Pete Vander Poel.
They have been upfront and transparent about wanting to collaborate with the county.
Pete Vander Poel, Tulare County Board of Supervisors
But the manner in which the tribe has communicated with the county is welcome because there will be impacts on police, fire and roads, he said.
“I’m appreciative of the tribe’s approach,” Vander Poel said. “They have been upfront and transparent about wanting to collaborate with the county.”
The casino has been in operation 20 years, and the tribe has been contemplating a move for more than 15. Although the new site is off the reservation, “the tribe’s ancestral ties to the proposed site date back to time immemorial,” the tribe said in a statement.
John Lollis, city manager of Porterville, said the city has supported the tribe wanting to move the casino.
One of the issues is tax revenue, he said. If the land is put into federal trust, the city wouldn’t get hotel tax or property tax. But a meeting was held Thursday in Porterville among tribe, city and county representatives to discuss a memorandum of understanding in which the tribe would contribute to local government, he said.
The environmental review process begins with a scoping meeting Jan. 23 at the Porterville Veterans Memorial Building. Comments will be taken until Jan. 30.
The tribe also will need a new gaming compact with the state. The current compact expires in three years. As part of that process, the tribe will prepare its own environmental impact report.
Santa Rosa Rancheria, which owns the Tachi Palace casino near Lemoore, does not oppose Eagle Mountain’s proposed move, said Elmer Thomas, vice chairman of Santa Rosa tribal government.
“Every tribe has the right to support itself with economic development,” he said.
The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians has federal and state permission to move ahead with an off-reservation casino in Madera County, but lawsuits have been filed by the Chukchansi tribe and Stand Up for California to stop the project. Those lawsuits have caused the North Fork tribe to delay moving ahead with construction.
If the Eagle Mountain casino is built in Porterville, the existing structure will be used for education, health care and tribal government, and will provide food and restaurant options on the reservation.