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Gamble is paying off for tiny California tribe

By Lee Romney
Los Angeles Times

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — An unlikely savior is bringing hope to one of California’s poorest counties, where the glory days of fishing and logging are long gone.

About the only good economic news people in this impoverished coastal town can recall came more than a decade ago in the form of a maximum-security prison. The town’s only claim to fame: a tsunami that nearly wiped it off the map in 1964 and left a lingering economic scar on its tiny downtown.

Now all that is changing. The dingy bowling alley got a $2 million face-lift, complete with fog machines and a synchronized strobe and sound system. The local golf course boasts shiny new carts. And on the drawing board for 205 oceanfront acres: a four-story hotel, a performing arts center and an Arnold Palmer-designed 18-hole golf course that local officials hope will finally land remote Del Norte County on the lucrative tourist circuit.

Driving the revival is the Elk Valley Rancheria — a tiny Indian tribe with 100 members, only a quarter of whom even live in this forested county abutting the Oregon border.

In enriching itself with gambling profits from its secluded casino here, the rancheria is not alone. But unlike many California tribes now clashing with non-Indian neighbors over expansion plans, Elk Valley is spreading the wealth.

And in its recent and rapid rise from poverty, the tribe has leapfrogged local government and other institutions to become the primary force for economic development.

“There are so many sovereign nations that say, ‘Let’s see what we can do for ourselves first, and we’ll talk to you later,’” said David Finigan, chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors. “From the very beginning, they considered themselves part of the community.”

Today, the tribe is the county’s largest private employer — with 250 workers on its payroll and 200 more anticipated with the planned oceanfront resort.

A bill winding its way through the state Legislature would allow the tribe to partner with the city and county to finance a desperately needed $35-million wastewater treatment plant.

“Neither the county nor the city could afford to build the plant on their own,” said Assemblywoman Patty Berg.

As in other gaming enclaves, tales abound of marriages shattered and homes and businesses lost once gambling took hold.

But in translating profits into local gains — and investing in wholesome industries — Elk Valley’s partnership with local leaders is emerging as a rare ideal in community-tribal relations. It is blooming at a time when other tribes are being picketed for plowing ahead with projects that their neighbors say provide little benefit.

“We feel we’re doing what voters intended when they approved Indian gaming,” said Dale A. Miller, a velvet-voiced retired law enforcement officer who became rancheria tribal chairman two years ago.

On a recent evening, Claude Rose took a break from his bowling league to draw deeply on a cigarette.

“The improvements are great,” said Rose, 40, a non-Indian who works at Pizza King. “It’s coming back into the community. And they don’t just hire their own. With everything they’re buying up, they’re putting people to work.”

The Elk Valley Rancheria was set aside in 1906 for homeless Yurok and Tolowa Indians who several decades earlier had refused to join a forced march to the Hoopa Valley Reservation to the south. Miller spent his childhood years on tribal land with his Yurok grandmother.

But the tribe lost its federal designation in 1958. By the time it won it back, in 1987, most of the land had been sold to non-Indians or lost to tax liens. Members had scattered.

It took years to rebuild a tribal government. Then in 1995, on a small property purchased from one of the few members who had land, the rancheria opened its casino in a double-wide trailer.

The neon-ringed gambling hall now fills 26,000 square feet and has 280 slot machines. No alcohol is served, but the jangling of the slots rings out around the clock. It is locals who play: prison guards and teachers, construction workers and retirees, even welfare recipients wagering their government checks.

Plenty of residents rave about the casino’s entertainment value, although tales of devastation are common too. Rose watched as luck turned against his former boss. He lost his house, a fleet of classic cars and then his restaurant franchise — costing Rose his job and slinging another arrow at the heart of an already-broke town.

For the tribe, however, the casino was a clear path out of poverty. No rancheria members remain on government assistance, and a college fund is putting 13 students through school, Miller said.

Part of the tribe’s generosity might be explained by its size. The nearby Smith River Rancheria has also profited from gambling but, with 900 members, has more of its own needs to tend to.

Still, Elk Valley’s tribal leaders realized that the riches of gambling could vanish with a shift in voter sentiment. They began to diversify.

In 1999, they purchased Harborside Internet — the only Internet service provider serving the southern coast of Oregon. After several years of losses, it finally turned a profit in 2002, Miller said. Then came Crescent Lanes, a fading bowling alley in a 1950s building.

More than $2.2 million later, the onetime home of a Piggly Wiggly supermarket has been renamed Tsunami Lanes and is a sparkling beacon in this down-and-out town. Laser strobes and black lights pulse to the beat of a high-powered sound system. The lanes glow. So do the balls and shoes. Fake fog billows from the ceiling.

Last December, the tribe snatched up the Del Norte Golf Course. In addition to a spiffed-up clubhouse, tribal leaders are planning an overhaul that will expand the course from nine holes to 18.

But the planned oceanfront resort would be the tribe’s crown jewel. Tribal leaders hope a 2,300-seat entertainment center will lure big-name acts and audiences from Eureka to Portland, Ore.

Although Pelican Bay State Prison, opened in 1989, has brought needed jobs to the area and a steady stream of families visiting inmates, this former timber and commercial fishing center remains sickly.

“If there isn’t tourism coming in, and something to attract the tourists, this town is going to die,” said Linda Klotz, 49, as she played the slot machines on a recent night.

“Somebody has to do it,” Klotz said of development. “And they’re doing it.”