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Tribal diversity

Sycuan Bank develops ventures with an eye on the future

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What do a boxing entertainment business, a historic downtown San Diego hotel and a major redevelopment project in National City all have in common?

They're among the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation's efforts to secure the tribe's economic stability.

Daniel J. Tucker

The Indians' casino on their reservation may be an economic engine today, but there's no guarantee it'll remain so, according to tribe officials.

Sycuan wants to diversify beyond gaming, said tribal chairman Daniel J. Tucker. The business ventures and investments will help the tribe grow even if gaming revenue sources dry up.

"Progress is progress," he said. "We've got to be ready for the future."

In January, the band announced both the formation of Sycuan Ringside Promotions -- a boxing entertainment business -- and an investment partnership with JMI Realty. It has an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city of National City to develop a $22 million hotel and retail project. In November, Sycuan launched the first Native American-run mutual fund, and in December the tribe bought the U.S. Grant Hotel and announced it would spend $10 million in renovations and upgrades.

The tribe bought Singing Hills Resort, a hotel and golf course in El Cajon, in 2000 and plans to develop Sycuan Square, a 12-acre commercial property in Dehesa. Both properties are near the reservation in East County.

The Sycuan Tribal Development Corp., the business development arm of the tribe, creates the blueprint for these ventures. It works closely with the tribal council "so the left foot knows what the right foot is doing," Tucker said.

The tribe won't actively seek new business ventures for a while so new projects can stabilize, Tucker added.

The partnership with John Moores' company, JMI Realty, involves a hotel project in downtown San Diego by the new ballpark. It's located on J Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues in the East Village.

Construction on the $50 million project started in January, according to John Pani, a JMI Realty associate. The hotel, to be operated by Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants out of San Francisco, is expected to open spring 2005.

JMI Realty is the developer. Sycuan owns the land and is the equity partner, while JMI Realty has a 99-year lease on the land. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) is the debt partner, and Kimpton Boutique Hotel Co. is part of the development process. The hotel will be named Hotel Solamar, meaning sun and sea, according to a JMI Realty spokesperson. Financing terms haven't been disclosed.

"It's a pretty good deal for us," Tucker said.

Sycuan paid $45 million for the U.S. Grant Hotel, located in downtown San Diego on Broadway across the street from Horton Plaza. America Property Management Corp., a San Diego-based national hotel company, operates the Grant. When renovations are completed, the property will be flagged as a Starwood Luxury Collection Hotel, Tucker said.

Eventually, a small museum will open in the hotel with exhibits and explanations about the tribe's sovereignty, government, culture and history.

Through a partnership called Marina Gateway Development Co. LLC with MWR Group and SD Latino Development Corp., Sycuan is negotiating with National City to build a hotel, restaurant and farmers market near the waterfront. The partnership entered an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city last August. On May 18, a draft disposition and development agreement is expected to be finalized, according to Ben Martinez, acting director of the city's Community Development Commission.

Meanwhile, back on the reservation, new homes are being built or planned for member families. In the past, members lived on the reservation in trailers, Tucker said. The tribe has 180 members and five main families.

Tucker, who is serving his second four-year term as tribal chairman, said gaming revenues took members off welfare rolls. He recalled when growing up that the elders would walk to El Cajon to pick grapes for a dollar a day. His father worked at Cuyamaca Meats, and he himself worked 20 years for Big Bear Market, Fed Mart and Ralphs, starting off as a box boy and ending up as an assistant manager at Ralphs in 1988.

The reservation's boundaries were designated in 1875 by president Ulysses S. Grant. The square mile parcel, mostly mountainous, was remote, harsh and poor for farming.

The tribe has since acquired additional acreage, including a nearby parcel off-reservation where homes are being built for members. Sycuan is the Kumeyaay word for a native wildflower, a yellow primrose.

Gaming revenues have made possible a tribal fire department with 26 firefighters and a seasonal crew. The department is part of a countywide mutual aid system and frequently responds to medical calls off the reservation.

Sycuan also donates about $1 million annually to charitable organizations, primarily to those related to health, welfare, education and law enforcement, Tucker said, adding, "We get hundreds of calls a day."

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