Glendale City Council supports tribe's casino plan

Peter Corbett
The Republic |
The chairman said the casino has been redesigned to fit in architecturally with its surroundings, namely University of Phoenix Stadium. It is currently drawn at 55,000 square feet, which is about a third of the original size. Tribal leaders say it could grow in future phases.

In a major shift, a divided Glendale City Council voted Tuesday to support a southern Arizona tribe's proposed casino near the Westgate City Center.

The council voted 4-3 to rescind its previous opposition to a plan by the Tohono O'odham Nation to build a major casino resort on its land less than two miles from the Arena and the University of Phoenix Stadium.

Glendale's new position comes after five years of fierce objections from the city, including spending nearly $3.5 million in legal fees battling the casino.

This spring council members shifted their position and came out against federal legislation that would block the gaming hall at 95th and Northern avenues.

The change also comes a week before a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., to discuss Indian gaming.

Mayor Jerry Weiers, who opposes the casino, is expected to attend the hearing and present Glendale's position supporting the tribe's plan for a 1.1 million square-foot resort and casino on 135 acres.

Councilwoman Norma Alvarez said the casino will create jobs for Glendale and generate sales tax revenue for the city from ancillary spending, though council members did not cite specific figures.

"We need to go forward," Alvarez said. "We've made some really big mistakes in the past in spending money. ...This will make our city much better."

Alvarez voted with council members Gary Sherwood, Ian Hugh and Sam Chavira to support the casino. Weiers and council members Yvonne Knaack and Manny Martinez were opposed.

"We have given up any leverage we may have had in negotiations," Martinez said of talks with the tribe.

The action occurred at a hastily called special council meeting that attracted more than 100 trade union members who packed the chambers in support of the casino plan.

"We're trying to get some work out of it," said Michael Henrichsen, a retired union pipe fitter. "It's all about the work."

Glendale had joined state officials and the Gila River and Salt River tribes in opposing the casino based on an Indian gaming compact approved by state voters in 2002, arguing that the compact blocked additional casinos in metro Phoenix.

But federal courts have ruled in favor of the Tohono O'odham on that issue.

Glendale leaders showed signs of shifting positions on the casino last fall when they started discussions with the tribe. In March, the council voted to oppose U.S. House Bill 1410, the Keep the Promise Act, which blocks additional casinos in Phoenix. The House approved the bill in September but the Senate has taken no action on it.

The Tohono O'odham still must receive approval for conducting gaming on the land at Loop 101 and Northern Avenue. The site is a county island on the border of Glendale and Peoria.

Federal officials last week approved the land for trust status, essential making it part of the Tohono O'odham reservation.

The tribe bought the casino site in 2003 to replace land flooded by the Painted Rock Dam west of Gila Bend.

Tohono O'odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the Tohono O'odham people are related to the Gila River and Salt River communities and will work out their differences with their sister tribes.

"This will be a major economic benefit to the West Valley and the state of Arizona," he said, adding that it would bring thousands of jobs. The tribe estimates the project will create 3,000 permanent jobs and generate $300 million in annual economic activity.

But Gila River issued a statement from Gov. Gregory Mendoza that said there is still strong opposition to putting the casino near a Glendale neighborhood. That opposition includes Gila River, Salt River and other Arizona tribes, along with "thousands of Glendale residents," according to his statement.

The statement criticized Sherwood for his "flip-flop" on the casino. Sherwood had opposed the tribe's plan, but later objected to the city's continued spending on legal fees after several unfavorable rulings for Glendale.

"We decided to negotiate and work with the Tohono O'odham in good faith," Sherwood said.

The Glendale City Council is likely to meet next month to disclose how the city could benefit from the casino, including bed tax revenue for Glendale, Sherwood said.

Salt River tribal officials were unavailable for comment.

Arizona Republic reporter Kaila White contributed to this report.