The Ridgecrest City Council on Wednesday approved a one-year land purchase deadline extension with the developers of the proposed tribal casino. The vote was four to one, with Vice Mayor Solomon Rajaratnam the lone no vote.
The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe and casino investment company Global Investment Enterprise Ridgecrest (GIER) have requested a one-year extension of the purchase and sale agreement for land to build their proposed casino in Ridgecrest because of economic slowdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the gaming industry. The new agreement will bump the deadline for the land deal to Feb. 2, 2022.
Rajaratnam said he had concerns about the viability of the project and issues with the security of the base.
“In my opinion as a banker I look at the viability of a project before I give a loan. This project is not going to make money for the city as we are expecting,” he said.
Council Member Kyle Blades said that Rajaratnam had “all valid points” but that he supported the extension mainly to show good faith in maintaining the relationship with the tribe.
Blades was calling in over the phone and at times difficult to hear but also noted that “I believe the casino should be somewhere different. I am going to keep saying that.” He later added that repairing the relationship with the tribe was probably the sole reason he supported the extension.
Blades also said in his opinion the casino issue needs to be put to a vote, presumably by the public.
“Things were negotiated and decisions were made and today’s issue was strictly about extending a timeframe for them to look at the financing and to be able to obtain financing,” Mayor Pro Tem Scott Hayman said. He added that the heavy emphasis was on what COVID-19 has done to the US and the city.
“I think this is a very fair and appropriate measure to take … I am in approval of this,” Hayman added.
Council Member Michael Mower and Mayor Eric Bruen both said they agreed.
“The good faith of the city and the city council is at the heart of this,” Bruen said. He added that the COVID-19 pandemic became an issue very shortly after the original land sale deadline was agreed on.
Bruen added that the pandemic caused an “exigent circumstance” making an extension at this point reasonable, but “we don’t want to be in the habit of kicking the can down the road … we don’t want to be back here in February of 2022 talking about kicking it further.”
Casino developer Nigel White and former Timbisha Shoshone tribal chair George Gholson– both of whom are familiar to council watchers from the past four years – called in to thank the council for their consideration of the request.
White said the pandemic “really has hamstrung myself and the tribe in raising the needed capital,” noting that the casino industry shut down.
“We will get there. We will deliver what we promised. We will be good neighbors and good citizens,” White said.
“We are just trying to move forward and see what we can accomplish in the next year,” Gholson said.
The proposed casino would be built on 26.48 acres of Ridgecrest successor agency land within the city on North China Lake Boulevard, near the front gate to the base.
The topic caused a long and divisive debate and dispute in the community, but a settlement agreement was eventually reached between the city (acting as the successor agency) and GIER with Feb. 2, 2021 as the original outside purchase date for the land sale. The new agreement pushes the date forward one year.
The agreement would also contain the following provisions: If approved, GIER will pay a fifth independent consideration of $1,000 to the Successor Agency two days after approval of the agreement; a sixth independent consideration of $27,000 to the Successor Agency on or before Feb. 2, 2021 and a seventh independent consideration of $28,000 to the Successor Agency on or before Aug. 2, 2021.
If the agreement does go to Aug. 2, 2021 the developer would have deposited roughly $223,000 in consideration funding, according to City Manager Ron Strand.
Attorney Keith Lemieux reported no reportable action taken on a closed session item described as a “conference with real property negotiator,” which lists Strand as negotiating with Global Investment Enterprise Ridgecrest, LLC about “price and terms of payment” for multiple lots in the city of Ridgecrest.
The casino was a long-running controversial item in the city. Frequent casino opponent Mike Neel called in earlier in the meeting and objected to the item once again, as well as objecting to the meeting being closed to in-person public attendance – a move made in response to a recent spike in COVID-19 cases according to city staff.