The Fort Sill Apache are gearing up for another round in their long-running fight to open a casino in southern New Mexico.
The tribe last week was granted a 30-acre reservation near Deming — the first new reservation in the state in decades. With that status, tribal Chairman Jeff Houser says the tribe is again hoping to develop a casino.
But as Houser prepares to travel the state to win support from the governor, opponents are also lining up. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman sent Interior Secretary Ken Salazar a letter this week outlining what he says is long-standing opposition to gaming by the tribe.
“I am concerned that the Fort Sill Apache have pursued this (reservation) proclamation for the purpose of strengthening its case to establish a casino in New Mexico,” Bingaman wrote to Salazar. “I am in strong opposition to the Tribe’s efforts and I urge you to deny any request to approve gaming on the Akela land,” the New Mexico Democrat wrote.
The Mescalero Apache, who run an upscale hotel and casino in Ruidoso, are expected to maintain their opposition to any casino that would tap into their El Paso and Las Cruces markets.
Gov. Susana Martinez has also opposed the tribe’s petition for a casino, but a spokesman for her office said officials have been meeting with Houser and the governor’s position is under review now that the tribe has been granted reservation status.
Houser’s first big attempt at winning public support comes Wednesday, when the tribe will hold a community meeting in Deming.
Mary Galbraith, executive director of the Deming Chamber of Commerce, said the tribe gave a preview of their presentation this week, which included an overview of their proposed casino.
“The people were very much in favor of it because it is going to create jobs — a lot of jobs,” Galbraith said. “Luna County has the highest unemployment rate in New Mexico. We’re over 19 percent, so this could be a very good opportunity for employment for people not only in Deming but in surrounding areas.”
Representatives of some of the state’s other pueblos that operate casinos said they had not taken a position on the tribe’s application, but outgoing Mescalero Apache Tribal President Mark Chino has long opposed efforts by both the Fort Sill Apache and the Jemez Pueblo to bring any competing gaming to southern New Mexico.
Chino, who lost re-election last month and is being replaced in January by Frederick Chino Sr., did not return calls for comment.
“Basically, I would like to meet with the new president, Frederick Chino,” Houser said. “He has not been inaugurated yet so it would be premature to talk to him. I think they had a fairly significant turnover in their business. … So we are going to talk to all the tribes as we’ve been talking to all the officials.”
Houser noted that if he fails to win the necessary endorsements from Martinez and others, “we still have the option of taking the route of litigation” to force the Interior Department and the state of New Mexico to let the tribe open a casino.
But most agree that could be a lengthy battle over differing interpretations of Indian gaming law and the tribe’s claim that because it is being granted a reservation for the first time, it is exempt from a ban on gambling on trust land acquired after 1988.
“Nothing is clear,” said Santa Fe attorney Richard Hughes. “I think there are certainly hurdles to surmount here.”