The Reno City Council approved a major expansion of casino gambling in South Reno on Wednesday night when it voted 6-1 to allow a Las Vegas-based gaming conglomerate, Station Casinos, to build a big new "neighborhood casino" (whatever that is) near the Mount Rose intersection. Although Station presents itself to the community as a "good neighbor," I'm not so sure about that.
My first question is whether a good neighbor would operate a huge Indian casino designed specifically to cut into the Northern Nevada gaming market and drive local casinos out of business. That's exactly what Station Casinos has been doing for several years by operating the thriving Thunder Valley Casino at Roseville on I-80 a few miles east of Sacramento.
Station plans to build a 60,000-square-foot casino (twice the size of the Siena) on the southeast corner of U.S. 395 and the Mount Rose Highway. The project will include a 17-story hotel tower with 50 rooms. The Las Vegas company introduced itself to Reno last month by mailing out 20,000 copies of a slick, eight-page booklet titled "Hi! Have We Met?" I'm sure that the 400 local residents who lost their jobs when Reno's Golden Phoenix hotel-casino closed last Tuesday don't think the Station is a very good neighbor since Thunder Valley helped drive their employer out of business.
Perhaps that's why some Renoites aren't buying Station's neighborly pitch. A new report by the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada claims that the Mount Rose junction hotel-casino will cost downtown casinos millions of dollars - and hundreds of jobs - and jeopardize Reno's efforts to develop its urban core. According to the Alliance, the new casino could draw up to $30 million away from downtown in its first year. By the way, Station has already received permission to build another 500-room hotel-casino at South Virginia and Kietzke across from the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
"We think the city is totally off base trying to expand gaming way down there (in south Reno) and letting the downtown core rot," said Leadership Alliance co-founder Bob Fulkerson. But in a Reno Gazette-Journal op-ed article, Station president Lorenzo Fertitta argued that his rapidly expanding company is "excited about bringing that (his family's) vision and experience to Northern Nevada." He pointed out that Station already operates 13 "entertainment destinations" (casinos) in Southern Nevada with 11,000 "team members" (employees). He didn't mention Thunder Valley, however, and we know why.
You've read my Indian gaming harangue many times in past columns, but let me summarize it for you one more time. By avoiding most state and local taxes, Indian casinos don't play by the generally accepted rules of the legal gambling business, and Indian gaming control is virtually non-existent. Basically, tribal casinos police themselves, which is like allowing the fox to protect the henhouse. And the understaffed and inept National Indian Gaming Commission is an impotent paper tiger.
Which brings me to an argument I had with former Nevada Attorney Gen. Brian Sandoval, now a federal judge. I challenged Sandoval when he claimed that his office had only limited jurisdiction over Nevada's high-powered legal gambling industry, the backbone of the Silver State's economy.
State law "no longer requires the prior approval of the Gaming Commission for any gaming licensee to engage in gaming operations outside the state of Nevada," the former AG wrote in a 2003 letter to the Appeal. That was after I had called attention to long-standing Gaming Commission regulations requiring licensees to operate "in the best interests of the people of the state of Nevada."
Obviously, Station-operated Thunder Valley isn't in the best interests of struggling casinos in the Reno/Tahoe area, and that's why the Las Vegas company should be forced to choose between its Northern California and Northern Nevada casinos before the Nevada Gaming Commission grants a license for the South Reno casino project. So I respectfully request the commission and our new Attorney General, George Chanos, to take a close look at this issue in defense of the vital economic interests of Northern Nevada.
Some will say that such an action would constitute interference in a free market gaming economy, but I'd remind my critics that casino gambling is a privileged industry and that state law permits our gaming control authorities to attach reasonable conditions to the gaming licenses they issue, as long as those conditions aren't "arbitrary" or "capricious," which they certainly wouldn't be in this case. A Nevada gaming license is a privilege and not a right and gaming commissioners should keep this fact in mind as they consider Station's application to build a huge new "neighborhood" casino in South Reno.
Meanwhile, here in Carson, we're already saturated with "neighborhood" casinos. Casino Fandango just announced a $100 million expansion and a California developer wants to put a casino on the Bodine's restaurant site adjacent to Fuji Park - a truly bad idea.
Enough already! Carson City supervisors should follow Sparks' good example and enact a casino moratorium before it's too late. Are you listening, Mayor Marv?
n Guy W. Farmer of Carson City was press spokesman for the Nevada gaming control agencies in the mid-1960s.