That kind of competition for gaming dollars at Indian casinos in the Valley could intensify if Indian casinos near Madera and Friant now on the drawing board are built.
The central San Joaquin Valley's six gaming tribes -- five with existing casinos and one with aspirations -- face an unsettled future. Some experts believe the Valley's population is not sufficiently large to sustain new and existing casinos, leading to oversaturation of the Indian gaming market. Another suggests a free-for-all approach to casino sites could be around the corner.
"We are to a point where expansion is growing the market as much as taking away from an existing one," said Mark Nichols, a professor of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno's Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gambling. "The time when you could open a casino and be the only one within 100 miles is dwindling."
The battle over plans to build a casino and hotel next to Highway 99 shows how lucrative tribes believe gambling can be -- and current conditions for the tribe that wants it show what life can be like without it.
The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians says they've jumped through all the regulatory hoops to build the complex, just north of Madera city limits. They say there's no suitable land for a casino on their tribal grounds in remote eastern Madera County, and the tribe needs casino revenues to lift members from poverty.
Price tag: $250 million. By comparison, the Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold was projected to cost $150 million when it opened in summer 2003, prior to a later expansion.
The North Fork Rancheria's casino plan is the target of a statewide referendum, underwritten in part by its closest tribal competitors who fear that a casino on a major highway just north of Fresno will siphon off customers from their casinos near Friant and Coarsegold.