A Coachella Valley Indian tribe could begin work early next year on a high-rise hotel and expansion to its Agua Caliente Casino just off Interstate 10 near Rancho Mirage.
The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is finishing the project's environmental impact report, which could be available to the public by mid-August. That will be followed by a 60-day comment period, said tribal chief planning officer Tom Davis.
The 14-story, 400-room hotel would be the third casino-hotel tower in the area, joining the Morongo Casino Resort in Cabazon and the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio.
Although the tribe is not required by federal, state or city laws to conduct an environmental impact report, it does so on all its projects.
Final say on the development plan, including its size and scope, will be up to the tribal council, which could vote on it by Thanksgiving, Davis said.
But representatives of Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert hope the tribe will listen to, and deal with, a number of concerns they have, including the project's effect on air and water quality, traffic, housing, and police and fire services.
"There will be houses there eventually, so we want to work with the tribe to plan for the whole area," said Rancho Mirage community development director Bob Brockman.
Casino and hotel customers, as well as employees, will generate more traffic around the Ramon Road and Monterey Avenue interchanges with I-10, said Palm Desert assistant city manager Sheila Gilligan.
The project will generate a lot of "low-paying jobs," Gilligan added, so she wants the tribe to talk about the need for more public transportation and address the valley's need for more low- and moderate-income housing.
Both cities have also taken issue with the size of the hotel, since desert architecture is traditionally more low-slung. Rancho Mirage, for instance, has an ordinance limiting most buildings to less than 20 feet high.
"Valleywide there is a lower-profile image. We understand that," Davis said. "But we picked that location because it is near the freeway and the railroad and some distance from residential development. We think it's an ideal spot."
In addition to the hotel, which would be near Bob Hope Drive and Ramon Road, the tribe wants to add 65,000 square feet to its casino and build a parking garage and a 90,000-square-foot showroom and meeting area.
Plans also call for a 350,000-square-foot retail complex on 40 acres on the west side of Bob Hope Drive. A pedestrian bridge would connect it to the casino.
"We have a strong market, we are in a great location, and the nature of casinos having on-site hotel rooms is important to the business," he said.
The hotel would still have to compete with the region's other casinos and resort hotels for guests.
Occupancy rates in the valley have been flat this year, as compared to last year, ranging from 68 percent in January to 80 percent in March, said Mark Graves, spokesman for the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Convention and Visitors Authority.
"We are always hopeful that new rooms will be sustained," he said. And as the valley's casino industry grows, it is funneling more customers away from Las Vegas.
"A casino draws a visitor with certain tastes," he said. "You also get a drive-by market from people who see a hotel from the highway and pull over to check it out."