Indian casinos may be on sovereign land, but their economic impact reaches far beyond those borders,

By Jonathan Horn 3:50 p.m. May 5, 2014

Indian casinos may be on sovereign land, but their economic impact reaches far beyond those borders, says a study released Monday by the California Nations Indian Gaming Association.

The report says that in 2012, the latest year of data available, tribal government gaming generated $8 billion for California’s economy through direct and indirect spending, supporting 56,100 jobs. A chunk of those benefits likely came in San Diego County, home to a state-high eight Indian Casinos. The findings show a boost from the first time Beacon Economics carried out the research, which found that in 2010 casino activity generated $7.5 billion in economic impact and 52,000 jobs.

“California tribal governments are upholding the promise we made to California voters: that we would provide for our people and land, create jobs in local communities, and be good neighbors by supporting the nonprofits and public entities that contribute to the quality of life in our regions,” said Daniel Tucker, chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay nation, and also the chairman of CNIGA. “Tribal government gaming is creating strong tribal economies throughout California.”

The report, unveiled at a news conference in Sacramento, extrapolated data collected from 17 casinos statewide, including three in San Diego. That represents about a third of those that were open in 2012, and is a slight gain in participation from those who answered questions for the initial study.

CNIGA is a nonprofit organization that aims to protect Indian gaming and keep it from expanding beyond tribal borders. The report comes at a time when two bills are in Sacramento that would authorize online poker in California, already legal in card rooms across the state. A spokeswoman for CNIGA said the organization was monitoring the bills but has not yet taken a formal position.

Christopher Thornberg, economist at Beacon, said the study focused on expenditures, not revenue, to gauge the total impact these casinos have on the regions they call home.

“While tribes are privy to overarching profits, keep in mind that the impact is broad and wide and stems far outside the actual tribal areas themselves,” Thornberg said. The report says $2.9 billion of the $8 billion in economic output goes to the 56,000 workers, about 32,400 of which work for the tribes. There’s an additional $4.2 billion in secondary effects, such as real estate, wholesale trade, communications and food services. Tribes spend an average $62.8 million per year on advertising, administration, food and drink and gaming. They also made $36.6 million in charitable contributions in 2012.

Thornberg noted that in some rural communities the casino is the biggest employer in the region, and industrywide 90 percent of the workers are not members of the tribe. The jobs pay an average $14.80 per hour and while that rate includes management employees, many of the jobs offered do not require college degrees, the report says.

“When folks take that paycheck home and spend that money on the various things that make their lives wonderful, that in turn generates local economic activity as well,” Thornberg said.

In 2012, state data shows that San Diego County gaming service workers made an average $9.66 per hour. Currently, at Sycuan, which participated in the study, jobs advertised include a graveyard slot server for $8.25 per hour; a bingo clerk for $12.80 per hour; a buffet utility for $9.80 per hour, and a deli attendant for $12.80 per hour. Card dealers generally earn the minimum wage of $8 per hour plus tips.

Cheryl Schmit, of the casino watchdog group Stand Up for California!, said the study did not measure the negative impacts of tribal gaming such as road repairs and additional costs for emergency services.

“Those impacts are subsidized by the taxpayers of the community unless tribes of the area develop mitigation agreements with local governments to address those impacts,” she said, noting that San Diego County does have some of those agreements. Steve Stallings, vice chair of CNIGA and member of the Rincon tribal council, said 95 percent of the tribe’s fire and ambulance services respond to non-reservation or non-tribal members.

While San Diego County has the most casinos in the state, the climate hasn’t always been rosy. In February, Santa Ysabel Casino went out of business with more than $50 million in debt. Before it closed, there were about 11,500 people working in the casino industry in the county. The National Indian Gaming Commission reports that in California and Northern Nevada, Indian gaming revenue climbed to $6.9 billion in 2011 and reached $7 billion in 2012.

Alan Meister, who produces Casino City’s annual Indian Gaming Industry Report, said what’s happening in California with Indian Gaming mirrors the national trend. “California is the largest state in Indian gaming and the driving force in Indian gaming,” Meister said, noting that revenue in California bottomed out at $6.8 billion in 2010.

© Copyright 2014 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.