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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Gambling on a Roadside Attraction : Bishop Paiute Tribe hopes its new casino will lure prosperity, but some residents expect it to bring problems.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Motorists along U.S. 395 just north of this Eastern Sierra town can’t help but notice the newly installed roadside building with “casino” emblazoned on its side in big red letters.

Hoping to draw local gamblers and lure tourists and skiers driving on the busy highway, the Bishop Paiute Tribe opened the temporary 24-hour casino in October at the edge of its reservation outside of town.

Construction has begun on a three-story structure that will house the Paiute Palace Casino, a 16,000-square-foot gambling house featuring poker and blackjack tables, video slots and poker machines.

Like many tribes nationwide, the 1,350-member Bishop tribe sees the casino venture as a way of establishing a solid economic base and pulling its members out of longstanding poverty. But some residents and officials are anxious about what the new casino, the first in this part of California, will mean for the High Desert community.

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Plans include opening the larger casino by January and someday adding a restaurant and hotel. Tribal officials said that earnings from the privately capitalized casino have been earmarked for education, housing and programs for the tribe’s elderly, with some remaining profits divided up for health insurance and payments to tribe members.

The casino would employ 150 people, most of them tribe members, and could help boost the local tourism-based economy by drawing gamblers into town.

“It will help make Bishop more of a destination stop,” said Paul Chavez, vice chairman of the tribe’s Economic Development Corp. “The dollars that went to Nevada will stay in Bishop--you’re talking about ten to fifteen million dollars that will stay in the community. That’s a major injection in the economy.”

However, many locals have mixed feelings about the casino, and some questioned the economic benefits. Some said that the casino might create problems that would outweigh potential economic benefits.

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“I don’t know that our little community is ready for a gambling establishment,” Inyo County Sheriff Dan Lucas said. “A lot of the citizens probably like to play games of chance once in a while, but Reno and Las Vegas are nice and close. My personal feeling is that’s where it should remain, not in our back yard.”

Lucas added that crime problems might grow because of the casino. “Doesn’t crime historically increase in areas that have legalized gambling? I’m not looking for the mob to move in, but things do happen.”

Steven Sperry, pastor of the Assembly of God church in Bishop, wrote an article in the local newspaper opposing the casino, saying it could lead to a decline in the town’s fortunes.

“I’m not in any way opposed to the folks on the reservation increasing their income, but I don’t want to see them doing that at the expense of the whole community,” he said. “I think the casino will make things less safe here in the long run, and that instead of stimulating the economy, it may hurt the economy overall.”

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Fears were eased for many when the tribe established a no-alcohol policy for the casino. James Wilson, owner of a sporting goods store on Main Street, said, “I think that a lot of the problems associated with gambling have more to do with alcohol. I would rather run into a nice gambler than a nasty drunk any day.”

Tribal officials said that proposed deep cuts in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service budgets, along with legal and legislative developments that have cast doubt over the future of reservation gaming, helped spur the effort to get the Paiute Palace up and running quickly.

“Reductions in the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget is a big factor here,” said tribal Chairman Allen Summers. With the casino, he said, “our goal is to be self-sufficient.”

Tribal officials said the casino is also a bid for a bigger voice and greater respect in the community.

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“The good-old-boy mentality in this town has had a tendency to not support the Indian community,” said David J. Lent, chairman of the Economic Development Corp. “We’d say what we’d say and they would shine us on. Now we’re developing economically and we’re going to be a voice that has to be heard.”


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