San Diego Business Journal

With nine existing American Indian casinos and the possibility of at least five more, San Diego County has been called the Indian Gaming Capital of the Nation.

For tribes, gaming has become a powerful tool for change. It's helped tribal members break free from decades of poverty and can lead to self-sufficiency. For the community, gaming provides jobs, attracts tourists and adds fuel to our local economy.

These benefits, however, are not without a price.

Gaming has profoundly impacted nearby communities. From increased traffic and demands on law enforcement, to decreased groundwater and changes in community character, the unintended consequences of casino development are huge.

This is the story of how two tribes working in partnership with county officials and the state of California developed a powerful new tool to lessen the impact of one future casino.

That tool, casino consolidation, respects gaming rights and tribal sovereignty. And, it can stem the scattering of additional large-scale casinos throughout our picturesque backcountry.

About 30 miles from Downtown San Diego, the 14,000 residents of Alpine enjoy a more peaceful way of life than in urban areas. They cherish their views of the county's scenic backcountry and deeply value open space.

Since 1991, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians has operated a casino on its 1,600-acre reservation just north of Interstate 8 in Alpine. The tribe has fostered a good relationship with Alpine residents and is a frequent sponsor of community events. The tribe also enjoys a good relationship with county government and has helped bring firefighting resources to the area and is working to improve the access road to the casino.

Twenty miles northeast of Alpine, far off Interstate 8 in the remote Laguna Mountains, lies the reservation of the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians. The 4,100-acre reservation has no public utilities, no telephone service, no radio service, limited electricity and no treatment system for wastewater or solid waste.

More than 98 percent of the Ewiiaapaayp reservation is rocky ridges and steep hillsides. Access to the reservation is via a 12-mile, steeply graded and poorly maintained dirt road.

That geography was bad news for the Ewiiaapaayp who, in 1999, signed a gaming compact with the state and wanted to experience the same economic success that gaming was bringing to Viejas and other tribes.

But, the Ewiiaapaayp reservation would not accommodate a large casino, so the Ewiiaapaayp tried another avenue.

That avenue was a 10-acre parcel a mile west of the Viejas casino. Twenty years ago, the land was placed in federal trust in the Ewiiaapaayp name. The parcel was, and still is, the home of the Southern Indian Health Clinic, which serves seven tribes, including Viejas.

The tribe viewed the health clinic land as its best hope for the site of a future casino.

For six years, the Ewiiaapaayp tried to get federal approval to build a casino on clinic land. For the Viejas and Ewiiaapaayp tribes, it was a bitter legal battle that pitted tribe against tribe. Viejas opposed the proposal at every turn, and so did I, along with others.

For Alpine and county government, the uncertainly was unnerving. What might road access be like to a second large casino one mile west of Viejas? What about fire protection, emergency medical services and added crime? Would it be possible to adequately mitigate all of the impacts, and who would pay?

The county grapples with these questions time and time again when it comes to the development of an American Indian casino. That's why casino consolidation , in the form of the unprecedented prototype involving Viejas and Ewiiaapaayp , is so important. The two tribes, the governor and county officials have all found a way to turn conflict into compromise by proposing to co-locate a Ewiiaapaayp gaming facility on the Viejas reservation.

Here is what happens if the proposal is approved:

The Ewiiaapaayp will gain an economic opportunity the tribe otherwise might not have.

Viejas will receive a portion of the facility's revenue.

Litigation between the two tribes will at last be put to rest.

Because newer gaming compacts negotiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger require enforceable agreements between tribes and local government, the proposal gives the county a seat at the table to negotiate for adequate mitigation measures. That's good news for the people of Alpine.

Best of all, the proposal is voluntary. None of the parties is forced to act.

What was an adversarial situation that sparked fear and conflict becomes a project representing communication and compromise.

The joint venture between Viejas and Ewiiaapaayp is not the only place in San Diego County, or the nation, where casino consolidation might be utilized.

As we speak, an American Indian village is threatening to build a 30-story casino tower on about 4 acres of land in a tiny, rural corner of eastern San Diego County. The out-of-state gaming company bankrolling the monster tower could learn a lot from the creative minds behind the Viejas and Ewiiaapaayp proposal.

That the concept is inclusive and not hostile makes it even more promising.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob represents the 2nd District, which includes all of East County, the communities of Ramona and Julian and the city of Poway.