New Clubs in the Cards? : Casino Developers Are Betting on Pomona and Other Area Sites

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s tough to find people who look like they’re actually having fun at Los Angeles County’s five card clubs. The sea of green-felt card tables in these casinos is dotted throughout with the stony faces of poker players assessing their hands.

Enter Tradewinds.

The group hopes to build the first card club in the San Gabriel Valley, proposing to bring more than a touch of Las Vegas to the Southern California gambling scene. Theirs is the most ambitious of five casino proposals during the past several months that seek to gain a toehold in the valley.

The Tradewinds plan calls for a complex on leased land on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona with the look of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” and featuring live bands, stage productions, ethnic restaurants, and rooms for playing video games and shooting pool. In addition to poker and Asian card games, the center would offer off-track, satellite wagering on horse races.

The main building at Tradewinds would be fashioned after a make-believe shipwreck turned upside down; palms and waterfalls would aim for a tropical air.

“If you went to the Bicycle Club (in Bell Gardens) and didn’t play cards, you’d be bored out of your skull,” said Jon Langbert, who is forming a corporation with three Pomona architects to build and run the casino. “We’re looking at the trend in this country away from just games and toward a whole product with multiple forms of entertainment, like the new Treasure Island resort in Las Vegas.”

Langbert--now an employee of New Jersey-based Capital Gaming, which manages casinos on Indian reservations in several Western states--also sees the theme park aspect as his best chance for wooing customers in a business that’s getting more competitive as proposals for card clubs blossom around Southern California in general and the valley in particular.

* Another group in Pomona is proposing a club on farmland along the Pomona (60) Freeway. The promoters say their casino, to be called Champs, would cater in part to Asian Americans with a first-class Chinese restaurant and variety of Asian card games.

The council paved the way Monday night for both developers to come forward with formal proposals. The council voted 5 to 2 to allow card clubs in areas zoned for light industry and at the fairgrounds. Also on a 5-2 vote, the council modified its existing gaming ordinance, first adopted in 1964, to allow dancing and alcohol sales.

* Casino promoters Michael Meczka and Frank Santin have vowed to take their casino proposal to Irwindale voters after a harsh rejection from that community’s City Council. Just before voting to oppose the club last year, Councilwoman Jacquelyn Breceda had just one question for the developers: “What will it take to make you go away?”

The partnership proposes to build the 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot club on Arrow Highway near the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway. They say the club would create about 500 jobs and generate at least $3 million in annual gaming tax revenue.

* In South El Monte, one of Southern California’s lowest-income communities, the City Council voted 3 to 2 last week to put a card club proposal to a vote in an Aug. 9 special election. A newly formed corporation called San Gabriel Valley Enterprise is behind the proposal, according to that group’s attorney, Jerry Neuman.

Neuman said the developers want to build a 50,000- to 70,000-square-foot building with roughly 150 game tables on about 22 acres south of the Pomona (60) Freeway at Santa Anita Avenue, less than 200 yards from South El Monte High School. He said the landowners, a joint venture of WB-Core Co. and South El Monte Associates, have offered to compensate the city for the cost of the special election to decide the casino’s fate.

More than 300 protesters marched May 12 at City Hall to oppose the council vote. Citing fears of crime, prostitution and drug use spawned by the card club, residents and Catholic priests demanded unsuccessfully that the council force card club proponents to collect signatures for a ballot initiative before the issue is put to the people.

* In Monterey Park, some believe a card club proposal by BCTC Development Corp. may resurface now that a new council is in place. BCTC officials did not return phone calls. But former Councilman Sam Kiang, was voted out of office last month, speculates that the company was funding opposition to him and two other losing candidates who oppose gambling in that town.

Kiang took the lead in opposing BCTC last year when the company made its tentative plans known. None of the three newly elected council members have opposed the prospect of gaming in town.

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“They have everything to do with why I wasn’t reelected,” Kiang said of BCTC. “I’m the staunchest opponent of the card clubs.”

BCTC’s name popped up toward the end of the council campaign in the Monterey Park election when about 13,000 city residents received an official-looking but anonymous flyer printed in English and Chinese that warned of $10,000 fines and imprisonment for those who disobeyed voting laws. The flyers were traced to Steven G. Mott, a consultant to BCTC. Kiang said he believes that the flyers were aimed at suppressing turnout by his supporters.

A 1984 state law placed the decision on card clubs in the hands of voters in Irwindale, South El Monte, Monterey Park and other cities that had no gambling law at the time. But because Pomona already had a gaming ordinance on the books before that law was passed, the council votes on card club proposals.

As they mull the casino issue, some council members question whether they’ve been dealt a royal flush or a losing hand. When it comes to approving card clubs, they fear, it’s a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Opponents say that, over time, card clubs breed crime and tarnish a city’s reputation.

“Pomona has a bad enough reputation as it is,” said community activist Bob Jackson, a council critic and onetime unsuccessful council candidate. “If the council approves a card club, that’s what this city will be known for, and it will be that way for decades.”

But Pomona is hurting financially, with one of the state’s highest utility tax rates (10%), one of the county’s highest unemployment rates (11.9% in February) and the city’s biggest budget deficit ever ($4.5 million).

As they grapple with these difficulties, council members are eyeing communities such as Commerce, which makes $1 million a month from its gaming tax.

“My feeling has always been that addictive behavior is not something you want to encourage,” said Councilwoman Paula Lantz, a self-described fundamentalist Christian who has been to Las Vegas a few times but doesn’t consider herself a gambler. “But then I have to think, ‘Should the city refuse revenue from bars or grocery stores that sell alcohol and cigarettes?’ ”

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Mayor Eddie Cortez says he is a teetotaler who abhors gambling because, like alcohol, it could have a deleterious affect on families.

“Personally, I’d close all (gambling houses) down. But that’s like trying to wipe out alcohol,” he said.

Those are the words of the Eddie Cortez who is a father of eight and grandfather of 20. But he added: “When I have my mayor’s hat on, I have to carefully weigh any proposal that could be worth $10 million a year in tax revenue.”

The question they face, Lantz and Cortez said, is whether the money and jobs are reason enough to eschew moral concerns. Both voted for the card-club zoning and updated ordinance Monday.

“I have to know how my constituents feel about it” before voting to actually allow either of the clubs to be built, Lantz said. “If they say it’s awful and evil and that they’ll drown me in tar and feathers if I even think about it, then I have to remember these people elected me and I’ll listen to them.”

The Tradewinds developers want to build their 60,000-square-foot casino to capitalize on the thousands of weekly visitors already visiting the Fairplex for conventions, trade shows and, of course, the County Fair in September.

The Tradewinds developers say they will spend $12 million to build their casino at the Fairplex, using local builders and suppliers. Langbert estimates that once completed, Tradewinds would employ about 540 people--mostly locals--and contribute $3.7 million in game tax revenue to the city the first year and as much as $10 million by the fifth year.

Tradewinds will also need a thumbs up from the County Fair Assn.'s board of directors, which was waiting for the council to decide on the plan before studying the proposal.

Meanwhile, businessman Leo Chu, owner of a women’s apparel company in Los Angeles called California Ivy, has applied for an operating license for a proposed 55,000-square-foot card club to be called Champs, which would be located on Reservoir Street south of the Pomona (60) Freeway.

Phillip Schaefer, an attorney representing Chu, said Champs would employ about 800 people and bolster city coffers by about $4 million the first year and $10 million by the sixth.

The club, which Schaefer said would resemble an upscale version of the Bicycle Club, would feature several eateries, including an upscale Chinese restaurant.

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If successful in winning over a majority of the seven-member Pomona City Council, the Pomona card clubs would join five others operating in the county: the Bicycle Club in Bell Gardens, the Commerce Casino in the City of Commerce, the Normandie and El Dorado clubs in Gardena, and the Huntington Park Casino in Los Angeles.

Also, a 200-table card casino at Hollywood Park in Inglewood is expected to open this summer. And in Compton, the City Council has approved a club, although developers are still trying to line up financing.

The debate in the San Gabriel Valley about the pros and cons of casinos echoes in numerous cash-strapped Southern California communities where card clubs have been proposed over the last three years.

Last year, voters in West Hollywood, Lynwood, Pico Rivera, Bellflower and in Los Angeles County rejected campaigns to license card clubs. In addition, the proposed club in Monterey Park never got off the ground last year because of strong opposition from city officials and residents.

In 1992, the San Diego County district attorney and San Diego police chief issued reports denouncing two proposals to bring large card rooms to that county. Both plans were defeated.

In his report, San Diego Dist. Atty. Edwin L. Miller Jr. cited the histories of California’s two largest casinos, the Bicycle Club and the Commerce Casino, as evidence of the corrupting influences of casinos.

The Commerce Casino was the center of a high-profile 1984 scandal in which four city officials--including three City Council members--pleaded guilty to participating in a hidden ownership scheme.

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Also mentioned in Miller’s report is that the federal government seized the Bicycle Club in 1990 after a jury found that the $22-million casino was built mostly with profits from illegal drug sales. Federal authorities currently own 20% of the casino.

Card club promoters say concerns about crime and corruption are based on outdated stereotypes. In fact, they say, the hefty doses of tax revenue that the clubs provide cities actually help cure crime by funding more police.

Commerce Financial Director Tom Bachman said: “But for the (Commerce Casino), we’d have some very serious financial problems.”

During the past 10 years, the city has built up a $15-million reserve--something it couldn’t have done without the card club.

Lt. Robert Hoffman of the Sheriff Department’s East Los Angeles station said that, since the Commerce Casino opened in 1983, the surrounding community has not experienced a significant increase in crime.

“If there’s crime occurring in association with the club, it’s so underground as not to be visible,” Hoffman said.

Sandra Sutphen, chairwoman of the division of political science and criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton, recently studied 12 years of FBI crime statistics for several Southern California towns with card clubs. Her conclusion: “Card clubs don’t cause crime.”

At least, not street crime such as robbery or prostitution. She does believe that, at one point or another, card clubs have tended to go hand-in-hand with political corruption.

Cortez and Lantz say they toured card clubs in Commerce and Bell Gardens and were surprised at how clean and well-run they were.

“I was expecting to see a smoke-filled room with guys wearing visors with garters on their sleeves, scantily clad women, guys with big cigars and lamps swinging back and forth,” Cortez said. “But I didn’t find any of that.”

As for the notion that card clubs spur crime, Cortez said, “Why would you invest $10 million in a (card club) and then let prostitutes destroy it for you?”