It was about eight years ago that David I. Baron became the director of government affairs for the Barona Band of Mission Indians, arriving just in time to experience the renaissance. Roughly two years before, Barona's gaming activities really started making money. When Baron took his new post, the tribe was beginning to spend its fortunes.
"They started building homes, the community center. Things started to come together financially," he said.
The tribe spent $1 million on 12 new homes for young tribal families, who until then had been living in cramped quarters with their parents. They made improvements to the homes of the elderly among them. And they provided full medical, dental and health insurance for their members.
Unemployment has been obliterated. A scholarship program now makes it possible for children to attend the college of their dreams. The tribe built the Barona Cultural Center, a fire station and additions to its one-classroom school. They also expanded electricity services on the reservation and began operating a wastewater-treatment plant.
In essence, they changed history. Taking on all these responsibilities themselves made dependence a thing of the past and self-sufficiency the way of their future.
Barona is just one of the handful of San Diego gaming tribes that have spent many millions of dollars of casino profits on social service and infrastructure improvements on their reservations-and changed their members lives in the process.
Thanks to proceeds from gaming, Barona has developed from a tribe that needed help from the government for the most basic daily services to one that can build homes and care for the health of its members. And it's quickly becoming a tribe whose members can themselves afford to build their dream homes on the reservation.
"When the tribal chairman talks about it, he says the people have their pride back. When they walk into a room, they hold their heads high and people treat them with respect," said Linda Devine, assistant general manager of sales and marketing for Barona's casino. "Just the basics they didn't have that we take for granted. Now they're going to college-they have a scholarship fund. That opportunity just didn't exist before gaming."
Touring the Lakeside reservation underscores the benefits Barona has received from gaming.
There is a modest yet thoughtful monument to the tribe's military veterans outside its church, located across the street from the casino. Drive down the road a bit and off to the right is the Barona Fire Station, a facility that opened in 2000, replacing the "pretty cruddy," according to Baron, metal double-wide hut and trailer that used to contain the department. The tribe's two engines, brush-fire vehicle, ambulance and other trucks sit gleaming in the large garage of the 9,000-square-foot facility.
Before starting its own fire department in 1998, Barona rented fire services from the Sycuan band. "It was a very proud moment for the chief to dedicate this fire department," Baron said.
Across the road is the Barona Cultural Center, made up of the Tribal Museum and Community Center. Tribal meetings are held in a large hall, children in an after-school program play in the gymnasium and there's a snack bar and an Olympic-size swimming pool in the back.
Next door is the K-12 charter school, library, computer center, daycare center and Head Start classroom for preschoolers. When Baron came to work for the tribe, it had one classroom. Now it has seven, in addition to the library and computer center. Iin addition to regular schooling for about 30 students, the new facilities provide home study and Indian School programs for members who want alternative learning environments for their children.
Inside the modest museum are exhibits showing a typical hut in which aboriginal tribal ancestors lived, the areas into which they migrated in search of better weather during different times of the year, an exhibit on cowboys in the tribe and a Veteran's Wall with pictures and mementos from many of the tribe's military servicemen and servicewomen.
The reservation is also home to a drag strip, a glider port, motocross track and a sports park.
The tribe has added on to its tribal office, which is in a 100-year-old home, one of two buildings on the reservation when the tribe moved here from El Capitan in 1932.
And all of it was built with gaming revenue.
However, the reservation is not totally devoid of Barona's pre-casino lifestyle. The barn, the other of the two buildings that existed on the original reservation is in a state of disrepair, missing most of its roof. Across the road from 12 new homes are the ramshackle HUD homes the government built here several years ago. Bulls-the tribe still has plenty of cattle on the reservation-lay lazily in a large enclosure by the side of the road, in what could be someone's front yard.
When Barona began gaming on its reservation in 1984, all it offered was bingo. Ten years later the tribe constructed a tent-like enclosure with machines inside. After the passage of Proposition 1A, Barona upped its machine count to 2,000 and established the current casino site.
Of course, the facility then didn't look like it does today. Just last month the tribe opened the $250 million Las Vegas-style casino, hotel and wedding chapel next to their 2-year-old golf course, which was recently named the fourth best course in California by Golfweek Magazine. In a nod to the tribe's founding families and how the land was used when they arrived here, the casino and hotel are decorated in a 1930's California cattle ranch theme.
The casino has anything Vegas has: an 850-seat buffet, posh services for high-stakes gamblers and even moving walkways from the parking garage to the casino. The 397-room hotel boasts a 100-percent occupancy rate on the weekends, beautiful guestrooms and a 3,400 square-foot, two-bedroom, four-bathroom suite for the casino's best customers, complete with whirlpool tubs and butler service. Luxury doesn't even begin to describe this place.
Similar social services and infrastructure improvements have been provided by other gaming tribes to their own members, including Sycuan, Rincon and Viejas. Campo, Pauma and Pala have relatively young casinos and have yet to reach the level of social services offered by these other tribes, according to a county report titled Update on Impacts of Tribal Economic Development Projects in San Diego County.
San Diego County's tribal liaison Chantal Saipe, who wrote the report, has witnessed the changes firsthand.
"The quality of life has improved immensely and unemployment has basically been eliminated on the reservations that have gaming," Saipe said. "Certainly members now have opportunities they did not have before."
Barona spent an average of $9 million per year between 1996 and 1999 on tribal government and community projects. According to the county report, in 2000 alone the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians spent more than $51 million on government and community projects. The year before it spent more than $34 million.
And it has the services to prove it.
The first expenditure Viejas made with gaming proceeds was for the construction of five new homes for elders. The second, according to Nikki Symington, a public-relations consultant for Viejas, was to purchase a tribe-wide health plan that included medical, dental, psychological and catastrophic services.
"That means they draw on none of our [county, state or federal government] services. They are not supported by taxpayers, they are supported by themselves," she said.
The tribe then beefed up its educational offerings for its members. A supplementary program provides home-school services for children struggling in the East County schools they attend, and an after-school program provides help with homework and with developmental skills. There is also a GED program and early childhood care programs available on the reservation.
The tribe offers computer classes for youngsters and adults alike. A number of adult education courses are available in everything from finance to tribal history and language. This program operates through the Grossmont College District.
The tribe pays for higher education and trade school for any high school graduate tribal member, Symington said.
"They haven't had kids going to college because they couldn't afford it and there wasn't a lot of motivation. This is a very big step," Symington said. "Now they feel they can shoot for schools like Harvard." The son of the Viejas tribal chairman attends Sarah Lawrence College in New York, she said.
The Viejas tribe also improved infrastructure such as water pipes, water storage system, sewers and trash-collection and recycling programs. "We're used to governments doing those things without thinking, but all those things stop at the boundary of a reservation," Symington noted.
The tribe has constructed a park, a senior center and developed a hot-lunch program for the elderly. They also started youth and adult recreation programs and a summer-long cultural program.
How much of this existed before tribal gaming?
"None of it," Symington said. "They got their health care through the subsidized Indian Health Program, which was very primary, very limited, unless [the tribal members themselves] had enough money to pay directly. Most Indians were unemployed, or certainly underemployed. There were no scholarships. One kid in a million would feel like he had a shot at Harvard.
"When you don't have money you don't have expectations, and when you don't have opportunities, you see nothing but a dead-end street. You don't have a lot of motivation."