Sacramento Card Room Debate Draws High-stakes Players

Posted by Nick Kump at Aug 23, 2011 03:02 PM |
Sacramento Bee 8.19.11

Prominent public affairs consultant Doug Elmets sat quietly in the fifth row, watching out for the interests of the region's largest Indian casino.

Elmets, a public affairs consultant representing the Thunder Valley Casino, charged that the proposed changes are a result of political influence.

"(City Hall) is about ready to write a blank check to put mega-casinos in the city of Sacramento for well-connected people that have been in elected or appointed office before," he said.

Elmets isn't exactly speaking for the little guy, though. His client, Thunder Valley, with its choice location on busy Highway 65 just outside Lincoln, dominates the region's Indian gambling market.

But, Elmets said, "the voters of California have spoken loud and clear that they want casinos in more remote locations (such as unincorporated Placer County, where Thunder Valley is located)."

"This would certainly lead to the urbanization of gambling," he said.

Another concern, Elmets said, is the proposal to allow a fifth card room license in Sacramento.

 

 

It was like the high-roller table of Sacramento politics.

As a City Council subcommittee debated how to regulate card rooms this week, former Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas and his son watched intently from the gallery. By their side was former Sacramento city manager turned political handler Bob Thomas.

Prominent public affairs consultant Doug Elmets sat quietly in the fifth row, watching out for the interests of the region's largest Indian casino. And behind the scenes – his name mentioned by many – was Sacramento's most powerful developer, Angelo K. Tsakopoulos.

Along with enough lawyers to fill a page in the phone book, each of these players has a stake in changes being made to card room laws in the city.

The council's Law and Legislation Committee moved forward Tuesday with a city ordinance allowing poker room operators to hold licenses for two facilities, up from the current limit of one.

Also on the table is the ability of card room operators to "co-locate" two gambling halls next door to each other, essentially doubling the current size limit placed on the shops. Smaller clubs and large Indian casinos oppose that plan.

Beyond that, city officials are considering granting a fifth poker room license by reactivating a permit that has been dormant. While approval of that change is far off, and the potential owner of the license hasn't settled on a location of the club, one site being discussed is a downtown office building that Tsakopoulos owns on L Street a block from Capitol Park.

The City Council must approve the changes and is expected to take up the issue in the coming months in the wake of the Law and Legislation panel's action.

The ownership group of Casino Royale on Auburn Boulevard is lobbying for the co-location and multi-ownership provisions.

That group includes William Blanas, son of the ex-sheriff. Both Blanas men were at City Hall on Tuesday, joined by attorney Jim Kouretas, another Casino Royale partner.

Helping them press their case at City Hall is former Sacramento city manager Thomas, now a public affairs consultant. Thomas also represents the owners of the Limelight card club in east Sacramento, which has discussed selling out to the Casino Royale group.

If the city changes its poker room ordinance, those operations could be combined. Thomas said his clients have no plans to do that right now, but are pushing for the rule change so they can keep their options open.

"The gaming business is so erratic right now, it would be a crazy time to invest the money (to combine the card rooms)," Thomas said in an interview.

Thomas and his group say changes to the city's poker room rules are needed to allow its card rooms to compete with large, out-of-town casinos.

"There are other casinos in the region, other jurisdictions, that would love to have you restrict city card rooms for their benefit," Thomas told the council committee.

Said Kouretas: "Indian casinos are closing in on small card rooms in Sacramento."

The ability to place poker rooms in adjacent addresses, however, worries some other city card room owners.

"Our concern is that this puts the government in a position of picking a winner," said attorney Tracey Buck-Walsh, who represents the Silver Fox/Lotus Casino in south Sacramento. "By allowing the co-ownership and co-location, it puts other businesses at a competitive disadvantage. That's a wholesale departure from city policy."

Buck-Walsh and others said there won't be enough oversight when rooms move. If an operator moves or combines operations, the plans won't go to the city Planning Commission, and will be debated by the City Council only if the council member whose district covers the card room decides to request it.

Elmets, a public affairs consultant representing the Thunder Valley Casino, charged that the proposed changes are a result of political influence.

"(City Hall) is about ready to write a blank check to put mega-casinos in the city of Sacramento for well-connected people that have been in elected or appointed office before," he said.

Elmets isn't exactly speaking for the little guy, though. His client, Thunder Valley, with its choice location on busy Highway 65 just outside Lincoln, dominates the region's Indian gambling market.

But, Elmets said, "the voters of California have spoken loud and clear that they want casinos in more remote locations (such as unincorporated Placer County, where Thunder Valley is located)."

"This would certainly lead to the urbanization of gambling," he said.

Another concern, Elmets said, is the proposal to allow a fifth card room license in Sacramento.

Clark Rosa, who owns Capitol Casino on North 16th Street, is interested in partnering with the previous owner of that fifth license. Rosa said one of his preferred locations for a new poker room would be empty office space in a building on L Street between 15th and 16th streets.

The building, next to de Vere's Irish Pub and within sight of the Capitol dome, is owned by Tsakopoulos and a partnership he controls, records show.

Rosa and his consultants insist that the L Street building is just one they are considering downtown and that zoning code provisions might prevent them from placing a poker room there. Tsakopoulos did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Rosa and his partners said a card room downtown would have a significant economic impact on the area, creating at least 175 jobs.

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