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Two tribes in talks over possible casino venture

Two east San Diego County Indian tribes are keeping cards close to their chest over a casino-related joint venture.

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Two East County tribes are discussing the possibility of entering a casino-related joint venture, according to a member of the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians. The seven-member band entered a tribal-state gaming compact in 1999 but has no casino.

Ewiiaapaayp, pronounced WEE-yuh-pie, has been exploring various options with officials from the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, which has a casino with 2,000 slot machines.

"We don't have anything nailed down yet," said Michael Garcia, vice chairman of Ewiiaapaayp. "We haven't come to an agreement about anything. At this point, we're happy we're getting along."

This hasn't always been the case, according to Garcia, who said Viejas opposed a casino on the smaller tribe's 10-acre parcel in Alpine. Viejas didn't want the competition, Garcia said, adding that the Bureau of Indian Affairs never approved a casino for Ewiiaapaayp because of political pressure.

Ewiiaapaayp, federally listed as Cuyapaipe, also has a 4,100-acre reservation on the side of Mount Laguna.

Garcia said that he and chairman Harlan Pinto initiated talks several months ago with Viejas officials about a joint venture.

Frank Riolo, CEO of Viejas Enterprises, the business arm of the band, said the tribe's opposition to a casino on the Alpine parcel stemmed from concern about potential impacts to a medical clinic there.

"We didn't want the clinic displaced," he said. "What we've attempted to do is craft a solution to provide for the clinic and to address the needs of the community of Alpine."

Riolo declined to comment on specific negotiations with Ewiiaapaayp.

"We're working out a program that would address the needs of both tribal governments and the community," he said. "We have a number of hurdles (to clear) conceptually.

We've formed a concept that's unique -- it's never been done before. We believe it's doable. We have to get feedback from everyone else (first), then we can flesh it out and get local input."

There's a preferred concept and two fall-back concepts, Riolo said.

The tribes are awaiting feedback for the proposal from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Indian Gaming Association. If feedback is favorable, Viejas and Ewiiaapaayp will publicize the concept and seek local input.

"In about another month I believe we'll have sufficient feedback and we can start talking about the concepts," Riolo said.

Viejas and the state recently renegotiated the gaming compact. The new agreement will allow the tribe unlimited slots. In exchange, the tribe will pay the state an existing percentage of its revenues and an annual fee per machine.

A consultant for Viejas said the tribe will start out with 300 additional slots, and may eventually go up to 500. "We're not going anywhere fast," said Nikki Symington.

The tribe is creating a master plan for the 1,600-acre reservation. A hotel resort complex is being considered.

Community issues need to be addressed, including water availability for a golf course, she said. Viejas, which sits on an aquifer, has its own water system. The natural underground well -- which is good-sized, she said -- would dry up during a drought. Another water source would have to be tapped.

"We have to be assured of a continuous supply that wouldn't drain the rest of the community," Symington said.

The San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau sees Indian casinos as part of San Diego's product mix, according to Sal Giametta, vice president of communications.

"The brand is San Diego," he said. "From a marketing perspective, the product line makes up that brand -- a wide variety of activities, (ranging) from fine dining, golfing, the arts and culture and major attractions to our incomparable climate and 70 miles of coastline.

"Indian gaming has become a product line as well. As such, it contributes to San Diego's appeal, one of many choices."

Several East County tribes are members of the San Diego East County Visitors Bureau. The casinos have created a tremendous number of jobs, according to Eric Lund, the bureau's executive director. There are more than 2,000 employees working in food service-related positions at Barona, he said, adding, "Up here in Alpine it's hard to find people to work. It's tough to find labor. Everybody's got a job."

Related Articles:

Governor, tribes agree to major gambling expansion (Aug. 20, 2004)

Tribes consider casino complex (Aug. 18, 2004)

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