A thousand people gathered inside an air-conditioned tent on the Morongo Indian reservation in Cabazon on Wednesday for the groundbreaking of a project tribal leaders are calling a symbol of Native American determination: a 23-story, $250-million casino resort hotel that will soon be rising skyward in a high desert pass near Palm Springs.
The Morongos said the project will make them a leader in the burgeoning Indian gambling industry, the only segment of the California economy that achieved double-digit employment growth last year.
When completed in 2004, the 600,000-square-foot complex will stand 10 stories higher than the Riverside County Administration Center, and generate about $2.8 billion in economic benefits for the Inland Empire.
“We hope to have some big shows,” said Luanne Martin, tribal vice chairwoman. “If Elvis was still alive, we’d showcase him. Maybe we can get his daughter.”
The project, which is on an aggressive construction schedule, is expected to spur additional growth, on and off the reservation.
Tribal leaders are talking about adding a golf course, dude ranch, fruit orchards, a trailer park, shopping center and rodeo grounds on the 32,000-acre reservation, just off Interstate 10 about 90 miles east of Los Angeles and 20 miles west of Palm Springs.
When the reservation was established in 1877, it had no significant natural resources beyond sand and gravel.
Striding past an array of dignitaries -- including Gov. Gray Davis, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, U.S. Reps. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) and Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) and California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres -- Maurice Lyons, Morongo tribal chairman, said, “It’s amazing what our tribe is doing at this juncture in our lives.
“Think of it,” he said, “I grew up in a house without plumbing. We used kerosene lamps and stuffed paper in wall cracks to keep the cold out.”
To some, the politicians’ presence signaled the substantial political contributions the Morongos have given in recent years. Davis received $180,000 in contributions from the tribe in his first term in office.
But Davis said he attended the groundbreaking ceremony because the tribe is “a model” for cooperation between Indian tribes and neighboring communities. The governor’s office is renegotiating portions of compacts under which dozens of California tribes run casinos.
The 310-room Morongo resort hotel was designed by architect Jon Jerde, whose firm, the Jerde Partnership, designed such Las Vegas resorts as the Bellagio, Treasure Island and Palms Casino. Its shape -- a towering tan blade-like structure topped by a two-story penthouse restaurant with panoramic views of surrounding mountain ranges -- is intended to replicate a “sail in the wind,” Jerde said.
The entrance will be marked by large, illuminated, petal-like arches inspired by seed pods. Tucked behind the hotel will be a “cool oasis zone” of pools with sandy beaches, waterslides and cabanas.
“It combines all the aspects of a Las Vegas resort,” Jerde said, “without the tackiness.”
As speakers took their turns at the podium inside the tent, massive earthmovers were grading land a few yards away in the shadows of the San Gorgonio and San Jacinto mountains.
In an effort to appease county fire officials, the tribe has agreed to spend $1 million on a ladder truck and fire engine, which will be made available to neighboring communities if needed.
Potential traffic problems remain, however. As it stands, the hotel will be reachable by freeway exits that are already overburdened by traffic. Tribal officials are evaluating possible solutions, including new traffic signals and roundabouts.
But regional economist John Husing was optimistic about the proposal. Over the next five years, he said, “the total economic impact to the Inland Empire area would be an impressive $2.8 billion. This would include the creation of more than 4,000 new jobs and $1.4 billion in new goods and services purchased.”
“There is little doubt in my mind that this development will do more than make a beautiful downtown Cabazon,” said Lewis, referring to the dusty community where the reservation is. “It’s going to trigger a mix of diversified development around here. My recommendation is this: If you didn’t buy land here yesterday, better do it tomorrow.”
To hear Lyons tell it, “It’s only the beginning.”