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  Gaming at Hilltop?
September 8, 2004

A fourth possible West County casino site at Hilltop surfaced today in the Chronís Matier and Ross column. Read on.


Firm sees Hilltop Mall as possible casino site
- Phillip Matier, Andrew Ross
Wednesday, September 8, 2004

There's a new player in the fierce battle over Indian gaming in the Bay Area, where three small tribes are already vying to build Vegas-like casinos within miles of each other in economically depressed west Contra Costa County.

The deep-pocketed Mills Corp. has purchased a controlling 50 percent stake in Richmond's Hilltop Mall -- and from the looks of things, it's all with an eye toward luring an Indian tribal partner to build a casino on an undeveloped 10-acre portion of the property.

Mills has made big news in the Bay Area in recent years, first as part of the team that was to develop a new 49ers stadium and shopping mall at Candlestick Point, and more recently as the winning bidder to develop a sports, recreation and office complex at San Francisco's Piers 27-31.

"This is going to upset the balance of power on all the casino projects in the Richmond area,'' said one source familiar with Mills' involvement in the Hilltop deal.

Hilltop Mall features anchor tenants Macy's, JCPenney and Sears. But it's had only mixed success over the years, and Richmond officials appear to be looking to any casino deal to help lift the city out of its economic despair.

"It's big enough for a major casino," the source close to Mills said. "It has the best access, and it's already commercially zoned.''

Mills declined to comment.

Until recently, most of the attention has been on nearby Casino San Pablo, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed compact with the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians for 5,000 slot machines (later cut to 2,500) was so big that it sent the state Legislature into collective shock.

And while the San Pablo deal is on hold for now, two other tribes are making bids for their own casino deals in neighboring Richmond.

There's the 112-member Guidiville Band of Pomo Indians, which just this past week won preliminary approval from the Richmond City Council to buy 220 acres of city-owned land at Point Molate for a mega-casino, shopping mall and 1,100-room hotel.

The Guidiville band, which regained federal recognition in 1991, doesn't own any tribal land itself. Its address is a post office box in Talmage, way up by Ukiah in Mendocino County.

Backers of the latest Guidiville deal include Jim Levine of Emeryville- based Upstream Investment and the giant Harrah's Entertainment, which would operate the Guidiville casino.

And to help push the project along, the tribe has hired none other than the law firm of William Cohen, the former Republican senator who served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration.

Meanwhile, at a spot up the road a bit, the 173 landless members of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians are seeking to have the Interior Department place in trust a 30-acre tract at Parr Boulevard and Richmond Parkway -- all in hopes of building a giant casino with 2,000 slot machines, plus a steakhouse and buffet.

That proposed "reservation'' has already been purchased for the tribe by Noram-Richmond LLC -- a subsidiary of North American Sports Management, which has also cut casino development deals with tribes in at least five states from Florida to Washington.

The group includes highly regarded Republican media consultant Ray McNally of Sacramento and the East Bay PR firm of Democratic consultant Eric Zell.

Zell's point person, Sallie Melendez -- a onetime staffer for the likes of former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and former Oakland Mayor Lionel Wilson -- tells us she's providing "ground-level reconnaissance'' and working with the community to win over public support.

Whether any -- or all -- of these groups strikes gold remains to be seen. But businessman and three-time Philadelphia mayoral contender Sam Katz, who along with a group of Eastern investors helped the Lytton Band secure the rights to the Casino San Pablo site, reportedly has already hit the jackpot.

Katz recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he and his partners intend to cash out their stake in the casino -- a sum that a tribal lawyer has put at "tens of millions'' of dollars.

Cop out: No sooner did San Francisco police Capt. Greg Corrales kick off his supervisorial campaign than he found himself facing a transfer from his perch at the Mission District's police station.

Corrales has been the top cop at Mission Station since 2002 but went on leave recently when he decided to take on Sean Elsbernd, Mayor Gavin Newsom's hand-picked candidate out in the southwestern fog belt of District 7.

Police Chief Heather Fong said that Corrales was being transferred as part of a routine reshuffling of captains and that the mayor had no input in the decision.

The ever-blunt Corrales says politics is at play -- a charge the mayor's office denies.

Department insiders said the real motivation was that Corrales had gotten into a beef with a politically well-connected lieutenant and that both were being transferred.

Whatever the case, there were some interesting calls made in the days leading up to the Corrales' departure -- like the ones between Newsom and Corrales friend and lawyer Bill Fazio.

Newsom reportedly expressed his concern over the tone of the captain's campaign -- especially the "Corrales vs. the Machine" signs that had been popping up in the fog belt.

At the end of the calls, Fazio thought he'd ironed things out.

Then came the reassignment.

"Getting transferred is part of police work, so I can understand that. But the way this was done sends a message to the whole department, '' Corrales said. "It's un-American to try and suppress a candidate because he's running against your guy.''

To which mayoral spokesman Peter Ragone replied, "Greg is entitled to his opinions, but what he is saying is not correct.''

"They can put whatever spin they want on this,'' countered Corrales, "but the whole (police) department knows what's going on, and that's what's important.''

Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. They can also be heard on KGO Radio on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Phil Matier can be seen regularly on KRON 4 News, and also on Sunday night at 9:30 on his own show, "4 the Record." Got a tip? Call them at (415) 777-8815 or drop them an e-mail at matierandross@sfchronicle.com.