By Matt McPherson
Sixteen months from now the 450,000-square-foot Soboba Hotel and Casino will initiate an economic and demographic boom like never before in the San Jacinto Valley. After years of negotiations, the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians has persevered in its attempt to purchase the horseshoe-shaped property at the southwest corner of Lake Park and Soboba Road in San Jacinto. The facility will include a 140,000 square foot casino, a conference hall, sports bar, restaurant, swimming pool, parking for more than 2,000 cars, and a four-story hotel with 200 rooms. The facility, which will have 2,000 slot machines and 24 table games will employ 700 to 800 people and also have its own tribal fire station, convenience store and gas station.
The invitation-only groundbreaking ceremonies took place Feb. 28 and unified Soboba tribal members and administration with politicians, city officials, business owners and a large number of guests from the Inland Empire. Even a celebrity was in attendance. Lauren Cohan, who plays Maggie on AMC's hit series "The Walking Dead," signed autographs and took pictures with the attendees.
The crowd was greeted by tribal Administrator Michael Castillo, who introduced Steven Estrada, chairman of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians. Estrada blessed the site and crowd in the traditional Cahuilla/Luiseño language and then translated the prayer: "It is a good day to bring blessings upon this land and give the Soboba people strength as they proceed."
Soboba Cultural Resource Department Director Joe Ontiveros then accompanied Estrada and the other bird singers in a song blessing the land and the gathering.
As the sun warmed the mountainside, Tribal Council Chairman Scott Cozart gave thanks to previous elders, mentioning Marian Chacon and Benny Helms and their help initiating the bingo halls back in the early 1980s.
"How far we have come since then is amazing," said Cozart, who cited the 1987 Cabazon decision for Vegas-style gaming as the catalyst for everything that has evolved since.
Sitting at the forefront across the stage were other tribal council members including Tribal Council Vice Chair Isaiah Vivanco, Treasurer Kelli Hurtado, and Sergeant at Arms Rose Salgado, who all spoke in celebration and appreciation of the historic event. Salgado claimed the rains leading up to the ceremony were the cleansing of the land by the creator in preparation of the groundbreaking.
Quoting Deuteronomy 19:14, Salgado said, "You shall not move your neighbor's landmark, which the men of old have set in the inheritance, that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess." She continued "We must give gratitude for all our ancestors before us and for those who fought for our rights. We must acknowledge all the tribal members and elders who gave us perseverance."
Isaiah Vivanco gave an appreciative speech, thanking and introducing Hemet and San Jacinto city council members, local law enforcement representatives, Hemet and San Jacinto unified school district members and representatives, in addition to numerous tribal council members and dignitaries throughout Southern California, including members of the Soboba Foundation.
The most powerful and moving speech of the day was given by San Jacinto Mayor Scott Miller, who praised the Soboba tribe for the "wonderful and amazing" facility they're delivering to the San Jacinto Valley. Miller presented Cozart with a certificate of recognition commending the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians and memorializing the special and sacred day.
"I am honored to be mayor at such a historic time, it is a blessing from God," exclaimed Miller. "I'm here today to set aside our problems of the past, tear down the walls of separation and extend a hand of friendship. Today is a sign of healing and hope to all those in the San Jacinto Valley. We are coming together in the covenant of friendship."
Miller went on to emphasize the importance and significance of the future hotel, casino, and awe-inspiring facility as he commended the tribe. "Your rich history continues to be an integral part of this community. We are here to honor the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians. Many who served before you only dreamed of this day," said Miller. "God chose this day and this leadership. Today you are not just breaking ground for the casino, you are breaking ground for your futures, your children and your children's children — they are the ones who will lead our country. Long after all of us are gone your legacy will go on. This center will become the diamond of this valley – a place to enjoy, refresh and relax. You are helping fulfill the purpose of this Valley — for people to get away and rejuvenate their souls."
Finally, a slideshow narrated by Carrie Garcia presented the crowd with a vision of the proposed development and gave a history of the self-sufficient tribe that was established on June 19, 1883. An emphasis on Native American culture alongside academic curriculum has been the focus at the Noli Indian School for decades. A lawsuit stretching back decades over the draining of the tribe's natural water springs was resolved in 2008 and allowed the tribe to move forward and focus on new ventures. Self-sufficiency has always been a driving factor for the Soboba tribe and has resulted in numerous structures, public safety, parks, fire, information technology and public works projects, in addition to cultural and environmental resources across the reservation. In 2010 the Soboba Foundation was established to engage in philanthropic activities throughout the community including a toy drive during Christmas, sponsorships, scholarships and grants, and numerous events and projects. Since 1995 when the first Soboba casino was built, the tribe has advanced gloriously and has shown its appreciation through continuous contributions throughout the valley. With the new hotel and casino, the tribe plans to capitalize on the already successful gaming revenue by offering a gorgeous destination and providing hundreds of employment opportunities to an eager valley. The facility plans to open in the summer of 2018. Watch the progress at www.soboba-nsn.gov/casino-replacement-facility-information-center.