Fantasy Springs Casino

WRITING - The Vegas Guy

Vegas casinos have been a little nervous the last four months, as visitor growth has slacked off, flattened, and in one month even gone down a couple of percentage points.

But I'm starting to understand why as a beaming Joe De Rosa leads me through the brand-new gaming floor of the Fantasy Springs Casino outside Palm Springs.


"We have every card game you can offer," says De Rosa, the recently installed general manager, who left a 20-year career with Donald Trump to work for one of the nation's smallest Indian tribes. "Even though we could probably make more money putting slots in that space, I want us to be a full-service casino. So we've gotten very aggressive in table games. We have ten different banking games. Blackjack, Progressive 21, Caribbean Stud Poker, Let It Ride, Fast Action Hold 'Em, Three Way Action, Three Card Poker, Pai Gow Poker, Mini-Baccarat, and Red Dog. And our poker room is the only property in the Coachella Valley offering Pan."

In other words, the California Indian casinos are ready to party, and there won't be quite so many people heading for Vegas this year. Historically Vegas draws a third of its customers from California, but one year after Proposition 1A was passed, allowing California Indian casinos to have every Vegas game except craps and roulette, the long-awaited siphoning-off process has begun.

"Do I think we can compete with Las Vegas?" says Da Rosa. "No. Do I think we can convince a few of those people passing by on Interstate 10 to stop here instead? Absolutely. Especially the people who are on their way to Laughlin."

Everything about Fantasy Springs is bigger, shinier, newer, with crystal fixtures, eye-catching pink and green carpet, and lots and lots of elbow room. Compared to a Vegas casino, this place is wide open, with enough space to drive a Hum-Vee between the slot rows. I would say that it's almost too spacious--most experts think that cramming slot machines together under low ceilings makes people more comfortable--but California is obviously a whole new game with its own set of rules. The Cabazon Band of Cahuilla Indians are throwing as much money as possible at the Palm Springs market, which has four other casinos, and the result is wealth they could never have dreamed of even a decade ago.

Twenty-four years ago, in fact, when Joseph Benitez was elected president of the Cabazon tribe, there were exactly eight people present at the meeting. Benitez had recently asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to raise the tribal budget from $350 a year to $1500. The Cabazons were, in fact, about two generations away from dying out altogether, with just 28 members and no prospects for any kind of jobs on the reservation. There were some trailer homes on the worthless arid property that had been deeded to the tribe in the 1890s, but the once proud band that ranged hundreds of miles across the Mojave Desert had been reduced to begging from the federal government for enough money to make long distance phone calls.

Yet today the word "Cabazon" is known to every gaming professional and Indian tribe in America. Frank Fahrenkopf, former head of the Republican National Committee and now chief lobbyist for the American Gaming Association, says the Cabazons' efforts to build a casino are one of the three most significant events in the history of American gambling. (The other two are New Hampshire's approval of the first state lottery in 1963, and the successful referendum on casino gambling in New Jersey in 1976.)

The "Cabazon case," as its known, reflected the seven-year struggle of the Cabazons against the city of Indio, the county of Riverside, and the state of California, all of which were opposed to casino gambling even on the smallest scale. (All the Cabazons wanted, in 1980, was a poker room.) It resulted in a landmark 1987 ruling by the Supreme Court that Indian tribes were free to offer gambling if they were located in a state that allowed gambling in other forms. (California had a lottery as well as poker casinos.) And that ruling led eventually to the hundreds of casinos that now exist on Indian reservations, with new ones going up all the time.

But the Cabazons had gotten into gambling by accident. In the late seventies they were casting about for any money-making enterprise that would get the tribe off Bureau of Indian Affairs welfare. First they tried jojoba farming, since the jojoba is one of the few plants that will grow on their land. (The beans are used for oil that's remarkably similar to whale oil.) When that fell through they opened a smoke shop, following the example of the Miccosukee tribe in Florida that had been successful selling untaxed cigarettes. But when the Cabazons started taking mail orders, mostly through ads in the National Enquirer, the Attorneys General of several states sued them and they were forced to stop, and the smoke shop eventually filed for bankruptcy.

The idea for a casino came from an article in the local paper. California card rooms, offering draw poker and lowball, had been legal since 1940 by local option, and in 1979 legendary Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was trying to open one in nearby Coachella. When the Coachella City Council shot him down, tribal leaders decided to approach him and ask if he wanted to go into business on their reservation land.

The idea wasn't popular with the local sheriff, who warned them that gambling was illegal in Indio. They met with him to describe their legal theory of Indian reservation sovereignty, but he was unimpressed. In late 1980 they opened anyway, and after a few weeks they were raided and the operation shut down. That's when the legal struggles began, beginning with a temporary injunction in federal court that allowed them to continue operating as a card room until the courts had decided the case.

It was not a quick or easy legal battle. The California Attorney General used every weapon at his disposal, including a challenge to the notion of "sovereignty" itself, essentially arguing that Indian reservations were not autonomous but had to abide by the laws of their local communities. The Indio newspaper was opposed to the casino, as was the city government. And when one of the Cabazons was murdered in the summer of 1981, journalists descended on the reservation to do articles that now seem almost bizarre in their speculations about the criminal intentions of the tribe.

The dead Indian was Fred Alvarez, a member of the Hell's Angels, drug dealer, pot-head, and local troublemaker who had tried several times to get the tribe to legalize marijuana cultivation and open a topless bar. The tribal government had grown so fed up with Alvarez that they essentially stripped him of all his rights and privileges--just a few weeks before he and two companions were found shot to death, execution-style, in a murder that's never been solved.

Investigative journalists, including Geraldo Rivera, suggested that somehow Alvarez' death and the activities of the tribe were related. The Cabazons had gone into business with Wackenhut, the giant somewhat secretive security company that provides services to many government agencies, and they had started preliminary negotiations to manufacture military night- vision goggles. There were allegations of dark alliances with the CIA, involvement with Iran-Contra, and murder because Alvarez "knew too much" about tribal plans.

All of these rumors, fanned by dissident members of the tribe and the anti-gambling forces in Riverside County, were eventually shown to be groundless, but they were bad public relations at the time. (As so often happens in small tribes, the internal politics were brutal. First tribal chairman Benitez was drummed out of office for taking money from a billboard company without the tribe's approval, and, even more serious, for giving permission to Indio and Coachella to annex tribal land. The annexation was nullified by a court, but meanwhile many people with Cabazon blood were attempting to be recognized as members, claiming that they had a right to some of the casino income. But the tribal leadership held fast to a one-fourth "quantum," meaning that anything less than one-fourth Cabazon blood was not eligible for tribal privileges. This is a much stricter standard than most modern tribes employ, some allowing as little as 1/32nd blood to qualify for residence on the reservation.) All the negative attention made the tribe even more paranoid than usual, as they imagined media conspiracies and compared it to their negotiated treaty of 1851, which was never honored by the U.S.

During the uncertain days of the lawsuit they continued to seek other businesses--first a trap-and-skeet range, then a bingo hall, then an energy plant that recycles old tires. And after the 1987 Supreme Court decision, they finally became fully self- sufficient. They also opened the floodgates in California, as many of the state's 107 tribes decided that they, too, wanted casinos. By the end of this year, there will be about 60 fully operational Indian casinos in California, with the possibility of more in the future.

Cabazon, the legendary chief of the tribe that bears his name, would have looked at the Fantasy Springs Casino on his ancestral land and probably seen that it was necessary. At first it was believed that Palm Springs would become the gambling center of California, but it now appears that San Diego is the larger market. The Barona and Viejas casinos, both near San Diego, are the largest players, with Fantasy Springs quickly catching up and big plans afoot for the Spa Hotel and Casino, right smack in the middle of downtown Palm Springs, where the Agua Caliente tribe owns land, and Casino Morongo, just a few miles east of Fantasy Springs on Interstate 10.

"My goal," says Joe Da Rosa, "is to be the industry standard on the west coast.

The Cabazons hired Da Rosa away from the Trump organization last summer and gave him carte blanche to turn the casino into high-roller heaven. "Our initial target," he says, "is the Coachella Valley. And within that there are two types of locals: the year-round customer, and then our seasonal visitors. This valley doubles in size around the first of the year. But we will eventually have a five-star experience here. This is the golf mecca of the globe. Perfect weather, perfect golf. We have an outdoor theater that seats 5000. We have the night club downstairs. Our lineup this year includes Kenny Rogers, the Four Tops, Trisha Yearwood. We've had the Turtles and Gary Puckett indoors. We plan to have a country western dinner theater. And we're breaking ground now on a hotel. We have 400 acres of land set aside for that."

Quite a change from the eight Cabazon members who voted at the 1977 meeting. There are 43 tribal members now, and their various enterprises employ almost a thousand people. And if their founder, the great chief Cabazon, could see them now, he would no doubt approve. Cabazon is not one of the more famous Indians of history, because his foreign policy in the last half of the 19th century was to fight the white man as little as possible and preserve the culture of his people at all costs. To do that, he made sure that the Cabazons made contact with all the white men who were crossing the Mojave in search of gold, to make sure they understood that the tribe was friendly, but also to make sure they knew there was no gold in the desert. He sent guides with them to point out the favorable mountain passes, entertained them, told them stories, and made sure in his own sly way that they kept moving until they were safely beyond Cahuilla territory. If their were clashes between Indians and white men, he would make sure that crimes in his own tribe were publicly punished and apologies made to Uncle Sam. Westerners who met him in the last years of his life said that, even as an old man, he had a power and dignity that commanded the respect of all the Cahuillas in California, not just his own tribe. Asked what he wanted for his people, he said that he wanted them to survive. They have.

Interstate 10, Indio, Calif.
Theme: Laid-back Native American Glitz
Opened: 1980
Known For: The biannual "Powwow," featuring dancers from throughout California.
Marketing niche: Locals, snowbirds, impulse tourists from the highway
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Dealers: Friendly
Bosses: Friendly
Tables: 25
Slots: 1,300
Rooms: 400 under construction
Surrounding area: The featureless desert town of Indio on one side, the desert itself on the other
Overall rating: 80
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $20 after a half hour of Red Dog: total to date: -$191



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