BARSTOW — A city official believes there is a possibility that the U.S. Department of the Interior will approve the environmental document for the proposed Indian casino in Lenwood by the end of the year as part of President Barack Obama's legacy.
"We have heard informally that there is the possibility that the study will be reviewed and released by the Department of the Interior sometime before the end of the Obama administration," Gaither Loewenstein said.
The economic development and planning manager shared his perspective on the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians' bid to build a off-reservation casino in Barstow with those attending the Barstow Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast mixer at the Ramada Inn on Tuesday morning.
"There is some sentiment that perhaps he (Obama) might want to approve this as a legacy project. For that reason, we remain guarded but optimistic regarding the casino," Loewenstein said.
Once the project clears the federal government hurdle, a compact must be negotiated with Gov. Jerry Brown and then approved by the state Legislature.
Loewenstein admitted that there has been a lot of confusion over the approval process.
"The confusing aspect of this project is that the stage it is at doesn't have timelines associated with it," Loewenstein said. "It took them so long to review it that the data got old. They had to get fresh data for the environmental document. At this stage, the ball is in the Department of the Interior's court."
Loewenstein commented on a number of development projects and issues during his mixer presentation. On housing, he said he believes new construction could happen soon. The lack of comparable sales to share with builders, investors and bankers is the last barrier to overcome.
"Once we get a few small homes built and sold, this market is going to open up really rapidly," he said.
Loewenstein also said the city is working with the Barstow Unified School District on a plan to keep development impact fees as low as possible to attract the builders.
"We have not had a new residential building permit issued in Barstow since 2012. It's been a real freeze on new housing construction. That's a real challenge because we have Barstow (residents) in particular who live in Barstow and clearly work in Barstow who really, really want new homes," he said.
He also said there are a lot of people tired of commuting from Helendale and the Victor Valley to jobs in the Barstow area.
"We are having a difficult time convincing builders and bankers that the market is ripe for construction. That's because the bankers and builders typically rely on what's called comparable sales. We don't have any new units to sell. We don't have comparable sales to show the builders, investors and bankers. We are selling everything on the market. It's just that our existing housing stock is smaller and older."
While Barstow only has a population of 23,000 people, Loewenstein said there are actually 50,000 to 60,000 people living within a 30-minute drive. So he expects to see more large box stores showing an interest. He pointed to Wal-Mart, which is building a Super Wal-Mart next to its present store.
"You could argue Wal-Mart would not have made the decision to double their size to a Super Wal-Mart if they were convinced there is a lack of market," he said.
Loewenstein also gave an update on the Spanish Trails project at Avenue L and Main Street, which includes an 800,000-square-foot shopping center with as many as 40 to 50 tenants. He said construction on that site should begin very soon.
"We have been working a couple years on this project," he said. "It a very complicated project because we have to (acquire) the site. The developer has to acquire the site. The most complicated part of the deal."
Loewenstein said he expected the project to attract such businesses as hotels, restaurants, fitness, health and movie theaters.
Mike Lamb can be reached at 760-957-0613 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @mlambdispatch.com