New Mexico tribes line up against new casino

By Jeri Clausing
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) June 2011

New Mexico’s Indian tribes are lining up against one of their own as the federal government once again is considering a controversial proposal to let a northern New Mexico pueblo partner with a Santa Fe art dealer to build a hotel and casino along the Texas-New Mexico border.

The New Mexico Indian Gaming Association Inc., which represents tribal casino operators, recently filed comments with the Bureau of Indian Affairs opposing the plan, according to Mark Chino, president of the Mescalero Apache tribe, which operates Inn of the Mountain Gods resort and casino in the Ruidoso area.

The group’s attorney declined to release a copy of the comments, but Chino said they are basically the same objections the tribes had when the project was first proposed -- and rejected -- under the Bush Administration.  Those objections are based on questions about the tribes claim to the trust land and its distance -- more than 300 miles -- from the pueblo.

“First of all, we don’t believe that the project is going to benefit the people of the Jemez Pueblo, because as we argued back then that the developer is the one that appears to be the major beneficiary of the project as opposed to the Pueblo of Jemez and the people of Jemez,” said Chino, whose tribe stands to lose the most among New Mexico Indian gaming operators if the Anthony project is approved.

Gaming has been on the decline during the recession, he said, and competition from a new casino just over 100 miles away and close to the populous El Paso-Las Cruces market “would devastate our hospitality enterprises here in Ruidoso.  We have invested millions and millions of dollars in our hospitality enterprises. And that would certainly take away the lion’s share of our business.”

Chino said his tribe also disagrees with Jemez Pueblo’s attempt to claim a historical connection to the land in question.

“We believe that the Mescalero Apache have a much greater historical connection to that area of the Southwest,” he said.

The Jemez Pueblo is located in northern New Mexico between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, along a corridor that already has a number of Indian casinos.

Under the proposal, the Jemez Pueblo and a Santa Fe developer and art dealer, Gerald Peters, would build a $55 million casino and hotel in Anthony. The plan was shot down in 2008 by the BIA, which said it was too far from the pueblo to generate jobs for the tribe.

The Obama Administration reopened the request for the Jemez proposal and a handful of other off-reservation casinos last year, but no one seems to know why, Chino said.

“Everyone we have talked to hasn’t been able to explain it,” said Chino.  “I am at a loss as to why the federal government chose to reopen those. If you go back ... they determined it wasn’t a viable project for a number of reasons. And now the Obama Administration, for whatever reasons, has chosen to take a second look at it. .. There has to be some kind of push from officials somewhere in the administration to tell the Interior Department down to BIA, `let’s do this again, let’s come to a different conclusion. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

The BIA did not respond to questions from the Associated Press about the reason for the new review .

The governor of the Jemez Pueblo could not be reached Friday. But a spokeswoman for Peters, Denise Ramonas, disputed Chino’s assertions that Peters, rather than the Pueblo,  had the most to gain. She cited a June 2008 ruling from the National Indian Gaming Commission that she said found that all the agreements between the pueblo and Peters complied with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Many, including Gov. Susana Martinez, are concerned about the precedent that would be set if the project is approved. There currently are only five off-reservation casinos in the United States, all of which are within easy commuting distance of the tribes who run them.

“So the precedent that a 300-miles distance would create not only in the state of New Mexico but across the country is staggering,” said Scott Scanland, a lobbyist for Sunland Park racetrack that also opposes the casino. “That’s why as much as the Peters casino folks make you try to believe this is a little local thing that’s going to be addressed locally, there are tribes from across the country that are sending in their comments opposing this.”

Asked if Martinez would sign off the plan, her office said, “the Governor is not convinced that the benefits would outweigh the negative effects of precedent that would be set regarding off-site gaming.  She is most concerned about promoting diverse and lasting economic development in the region.  As always, the Governor is willing to listen to opposing views and fairly consider information provided by those who support a different position.”

The Las Cruces and Dona Ana Chambers of Commerce have endorsed the proposals, saying it will bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to the area.