Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | September 4, 2004

Betting on a tribal casino

If I were a betting woman, I’d wager that San Benito County will be home to a tribal casino within five years.

Representatives of a tiny band of Miwok Indians who have federally recognized sovereignty recently approached officials in San Benito and Santa Clara counties to float the idea of building a casino on Highway 25 near U.S. 101.

A Native American casino just south of the Santa Clara County line could have dramatic impacts outside of San Benito County, especially for those of us who live in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Martin.

Southbound traffic on 101, already difficult on getaway Fridays, could grind to unbearable. The poorly designed Highway 25 off-ramp can barely handle the rush hour traffic it gets now. During peak traffic times, cars trying to exit onto Highway 25 frequently cause dangerous backups on southbound 101.

Highway 25 has been the site of some horrific accidents, and the railroad tracks near the Santa Clara County-San Benito County line can rattle the slot machine quarters out of your pocket.

I’m not much of a poker player, but it seems to me that if officials and the 56,300 residents of San Benito County play their cards right, they might be able to leverage this opportunity into a much-needed economic engine for the region.

According to the California Economic Development Department, the 2002 unemployment rate in San Benito County was 10 percent, significantly higher than the state average of 6.7 percent at the same time.

The county had 27,890 people in the labor force in 2002. With only 15,110 jobs in the county, it’s clear that a large chunk of the workforce has to commute out of the county to find work.

It doesn’t take an economics degree to understand that the promise of 1,500 jobs is a powerful incentive for San Benito County to welcome a casino. The county could desperately use the economic kick start a casino could provide. A successful casino will draw hotels, restaurants and other support businesses to the area, amplifying its economic boost to San Benito County.

I’m no bookie, but I’d lay short odds that a casino in San Benito County will be a huge success. The nearest choice for casino gambling is Cache Creek in Brooks, an hours-long drive along notoriously clogged Interstate 80.

Back in the days when I had more time for freelancing, I worked with the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce editing its Destinations magazine, part of the chamber’s drive to increase in-state tourism in San Benito County. It seems a safe bet that a casino dovetails nicely with the chamber’s efforts to entice Californians to visit San Benito County.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the abstract of a report called “The Social and Economic Impact of Native American Casinos” by the National Bureau of Economic Research had to say on the topic:

“In counties where an Indian-owned casino opens, we find that jobs per adult increase by about five percent of the median value. Given the size of tribes relative to their counties, most of this growth in employment is due to growth in non-Native American employment. The increase in economic activity appears to have some health benefits in that four or more years after a casino opens, mortality has fallen by 2 percent in a county with a casino and an amount half that in counties near a casino.”

Casinos aren’t without their downsides. The same report notes that “Four years after a casino opens, bankruptcy rates, violent crime, and auto thefts and larceny are up 10 percent in counties with a casino.”

I wonder how crime rates change as a result of a high concentration of retail establishments. Care to place any bets?

Improving the economy isn’t the only jackpot San Benito County might win if a tribal casino locates there. Sorely needed and long-delayed infrastructure improvements might also finally become reality.

To make it easier for customers to travel to their business, casino operators might pay to improve the aforementioned Highway 25 interchange and the road itself. U.S. 101, which narrows south of Gilroy, might be widened.

For San Benito County residents and officials, now’s the time for a poker face. Whether a tribal casino turns out to be good or bad for South Valley really depends on how well San Benito County plays its cards.

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