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Tom Davis is philosophical regarding his work: “I wouldn’t change a thing. I enjoyed having my own business, but when it became tedious, my attitude was, ‘I’m outta here.’”

That attitude was a lucky break for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Davis, 68, a Rancho Mirage resident, was born in Teaneck, N.J., and grew up in Anaheim. He started doing consulting work in the desert in 1990 and made the full-time move from Orange County in 1997.

“I had my own land-planning and development consulting business,” says Davis, “but when the recession that everybody forgets about happened, many of my competitors were heading to Las Vegas because there was so much development going on there. I wanted to expand my business reach and profile, and I knew the desert had great growth potential. Plus, my wife’s parents were here, and her grandma and grandpa had the first liquor store and motel in Palm Desert, so there were personal connections as well as business potential that made this area desirable.”

Davis earned his degree in landscape architecture from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

“My dad always said to be in a profession where you can be independent,” Davis said. “I was strong in math and had an artistic flair—I liked to draw. I also had a strong design sense. They had an accredited program, which was hard to find in the Western United States.

“I met my wife, Debbie, at Cal Poly in 1970 at a Three Dog Night concert on a blind date. A friend said, ‘You need to meet this young lady.’ We were married after less than two years. After school, I went to Denver because I wanted to ski all the time, and I worked for a company planning a ski resort.”

Davis worked for a firm while he was in college that did work in Palm Springs.

“They educated me about the interrelationship between the tribe and the city,” he said. “I was originally out here in the desert working the territory and doing collaborative work with (Southern California planning consultant) John Q. Adams—yes, he’s a real descendant. I was the physical planning guy; he was the policy guy. Then he died suddenly, and a friend he worked for told me about the Agua Caliente looking for a planner. That was in 1992.

“The tribe was looking for an outsider, not someone beholden to local politics. The tribe is an extended family that understands the importance of outreach and the need to be connected to all sides politically.

“For six months, I was doing a variety of different things as staff to the Indian Planning Commission. When I started with the tribe, they had only six employees, with me and their general counsel as outside contractors. Then we got involved with Caesars Palace when the tribe was getting into gaming and expansion. Land development is highly political. You have to go through architectural review committees, planning commissions and city councils. I went to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento. We all learned a lot as we went along.”

Davis is currently the chief planning and development officer for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. He has built the department to a staff of about 35.

A serious bout with cancer changed Davis’ life.

“I used to be really athletic, but the cancer set me back. I go through life now week by week,” he said. “We bought a house in 2008 on a kind of remote mountain at June Lake in the Eastern Sierras. I hike and go fly fishing. It’s pristine and quiet. I might not see another person for days. For me, a bucket-list item would be to visit with an old friend, sit on the porch, and tell stories … although I would like to make it to Italy.”

For a long time after his cancer treatment, Davis was resistant to make use of a support group. “When I got the bad news from the doctor, I was thinking about all the stuff I’d be faced with. They asked me questions like, ‘Are you worried about your treatment?’ Duh.

“Finally, I went to a support group and I was amazed how therapeutic it is. I could speak frankly, and realized that everybody has something to deal with. That was when I began to talk about what I’d been through. We could all cry and laugh. We could all share our experiences and tell others what works. We talked about lots of simple things we take for granted. I came to realize the positive impact of all that. It’s helpful to share.”

After obtaining a master’s degree in education, Davis has been sharing his knowledge of the tribe by teaching classes, including “Agua Caliente: Then and Now,” through the Osher Institute at California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus.

Davis is also a reader, influenced by Moby Dick and The Godfather, and he is currently immersed in Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World, about the building of the transcontinental railroad. “It’s about a turning point in our history,” he says, “and it’s fascinating.”

Tom Davis’ guiding principle is to work hard and play hard. “I want to tell young people, based on my experience, to do something you love. There are different specialties in every era. Find a profession you love to do, and even if one day you wake up with a layoff or disappointment, you’ll just work harder and still enjoy every day.

“I’ve changed a lot in the last several years. Between my cancer and the loss of both my parents within eight months of each other last year, now I wake up, and I’m just happy to be here.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians made it perfectly clear to the city of Palm Springs: The tribe strongly objects to Measure C, the ballot initiative that would effectively ban vacation rentals, which will be decided on by Palm Springs voters on June 5.

“The tribe is concerned that this ban is onerous and unnecessary restriction of the use of allotted trust land,” said the letter from Tom Davis, tribe’s chief planning and development officer, hand-delivered to City Manager David Ready. “The complete prohibition of vacation rentals in R1 zones is an extreme action that will likely only serve to drive this activity ‘underground.’”

According to city records, approximately 770 of the 1,986 permitted short-term vacation rentals are on tribal land. As a sovereign nation, the tribe does not need to implement any of Palm Springs’ ordinances when it comes to properties built on its reservation.

After sharing the letter with me, Davis—who started working for the tribe more than a quarter-century ago, when current Chairman Jeff Grubbe was still in high school—agreed to an email interview.

What is the main concern for the tribe regarding the possible ban on short-term rentals in Palm Springs?

The tribe believes that a total ban on short-term vacation rentals is overly restrictive and, in certain cases, contrary to the principle of highest and best use of allotted trust land.

What are the tribe’s legal options in the case?

Land-use regulation is under the tribe’s sovereign authority. However, allotted trust lands in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and parts of the county are subject to our land-use agreements with those jurisdictions. These land-use agreements allow for local jurisdictions to regulate land use, and all decisions are appealable to the Tribal Council for final decision.

You have been with the tribe for decades. Has there ever been a situation like this before?

Nothing specifically like this. However, in 2004, there was a referendum of the city’s rezoning of “Section 14,” a square mile in downtown that is reservation land master-planned by the tribe and rezoned in cooperation (with) the city. The referendum was sponsored by labor unions. A “yes” vote approved the City Council’s decision, and it passed.

On a brighter note, the tribe just announced plans for a new downtown Palm Springs cultural center.

The tribe invites the community to its groundbreaking at 9 a.m., Friday, May 11, of its new 5.8-acre cultural center in the heart of downtown Palm Springs that celebrates the history, culture and traditions of the Agua Caliente people.

What is the timeline for finishing the project?

The groundbreaking will be at the corner of Indian Canyon Drive and Tahquitz Canyon Way, and kicks off a two-year construction cycle to build a new cultural museum; an Agua Caliente Spa and Bathhouse that celebrates the tribe’s ancient Agua Caliente hot mineral spring; a gathering plaza; gardens; and an Oasis Trail. The project is on target to open in 2020.

Simultaneously, the tribe is making plans for an expansion of the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage. More on that?

The tribal environmental impact report will study the potential environmental impacts of an expansion of the resort that may include expanding the gaming area by up to 58,000 square feet; meeting space by up to 41,000 square feet; the food, beverage and retail space by 25,000 square feet; and the development of up to 310 new hotel rooms in 364,000 square feet of hotel space. About 120,000 square feet of new commercial space is also being considered to the south of the resort. Like any environmental analyses, the tribe’s environmental report will study the maximum development potential and use that information to refine the project.

There are also plans for a new casino in Cathedral City.

The tribe proposes to build a gaming facility and ancillary amenities on land that it owns contiguous to the tribe’s reservation within the city of Cathedral City. As part of the proposed project, an application has been filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take approximately 13 acres of land into trust on behalf of the tribe for gaming purposes. The federal actions necessary to implement the proposed project trigger the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. The tribe proposes to develop and operate a gaming facility and ancillary amenities on the project site, which has been previously developed. The proposed project is planned to be designed and constructed in multiple phases and ultimately consists of the development of a casino, parking, bars, restaurants, retail and mixed-use space, and tribal government office space.

Published in Local Issues

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians is at a crossroads.

The tribe, which has some 32,000 acres of land across Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage and outlying areas, is making big plans for its prime downtown Palm Springs real estate. Meanwhile, the tribe is involved in a controversial lawsuit against the valley’s two largest water agencies over control of the area’s water rights.

In addition, tribal leadership, with Chairman Jeff Grubbe at the helm, is preparing for an uncertain future that includes online gambling—which may or may not hurt the tribe’s casino revenues.

The late Richard Milanovich (1942-2012) reigned as the tribal chairman for 28 years, during which he placed winning bets on the gambling industry. He led his people from obscurity to become the first Native American tribe in California to own and operate two major casinos—Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs, and Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa in Rancho Mirage.

The Tribe’s 480 members significantly benefit from the casinos. “There’s a direct per-capita payment to all tribal members, both minors and adults,” Milanovich told me in a 2003 interview.

Milanovich was a brilliant speaker and a clever leader who was always open to the media. However, Grubbe is a different kind of leader. He’s not media-savvy like his predecessor was, and prefers to lead from the background.

The current Tribal Council consists of familiar names. Grubbe’s close childhood friend, Vincent Gonzales III (whose aunt Barbara Gonzales was a tribal chairman) is the secretary and treasurer. Tribal councilmember Anthony Andreas III needs no introduction; after all, Andreas Canyon is named after his family. The vice chair, Larry Olinger, 78, is the oldest councilmember; the youngest is Richard’s son, Reid Milanovich, at 32.

Grubbe, who was elected to the council in 2006 and became chairman after Richard Milanovich’s passing in 2012, recently granted the Independent a rare interview. He recalled an occasion at what was then the Wyndham Hotel in Palm Springs when Richard Milanovich “threw him in the fire” to test his mettle.

“It was one of the first times I spoke publicly for the tribe,” Grubbe said. “Richard called me and said he wanted me to speak instead of him, and to welcome everybody to the tribal reservation at this conference. He said it’d be about 20 people.”

When Grubbe got there, he realized there were actually 500 people present.

“I started my opening remarks with how Richard had just pulled an Indian trick on me,” Grubbe said. “Later, Richard told me that I did great, and that at some point, I’d have to talk, anyway.”

During his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown appointed Grubbe’s grandfather, Lawrence Pierce, to the state Water Quality Control Board. Today, Grubbe said, the tribe enjoys a positive and a solid relationship with the governor.

“Gov. Brown has been good to us, and he respected us,” Grubbe said. “I’d been close to the governor. We had dinners a few times, and we talked several times.”

The tribe is presently pursuing two hefty lawsuits, regarding water rights and taxes.

Grubbe said he could not talk about the lawsuits. “But the water issue is that the aquifer is overused, and the quality of the water dumped in is low,” he said. “And for some reason, both the (Coachella Valley) Water District and the (Desert) Water Agency refused to hear our concerns. So we had to address the issue.”

The water litigation is ongoing.

As for the tax lawsuit: Riverside County assesses and collects a possessory interest tax from leaseholders on tribal lands in the valley. In a sense, the tax is a replacement for a property tax. Tribe spokeswoman Kate Anderson claims those taxes are not returned to the valley in the form of services, but are primarily used elsewhere in Riverside County. The tax lawsuit is also ongoing.

From time to time, tribal leadership gets criticized for a lack of transparency.

“I think that is not necessarily true. The tribe has been open, and it continues to be open,” he said. “I just spoke at a Palm Springs Chamber of Commerce meeting before 300 people—local and state officials, business owners and community leaders—and talked about what the is tribe working on. Sometimes, when the tribe does something that certain groups don’t like, they throw in that the tribe is not open enough.”

The tribe has plans for a new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum building on Tahquitz Canyon Way in Palm Springs. However, the tribe wants the community to chip in to help with the $65 million capital campaign.

“It’s a tough job to raise the money for it,” Grubbe said. “My mom’s been on the (Cultural) Museum Board for years. I’ve been talking to the mayor and a couple of City Council members in hopes that the city could possibly get involved, too.”

Grubbe addressed the relationship with the city of Palm Springs, considering the two governments need to exist side by side.

“I try to meet with the mayor nearly every month or so,” Grubbe said. “And there are two new City Council members, Geoff Kors and J.R. Roberts, who seem interested in talking and working with us. But Ginny Foat said some negative comments about us in the newspaper.”

I also asked Foat about her comments, made to The Desert Sun last year, during which she was quoted as saying she “would never do anything on Indian land.”

“I didn’t say what was in the paper,” Foat said. “They took my quote totally out of context. I didn’t say anything negative about the tribe and tribal land.”

Grubbe also talked about former Mayor Steve Pougnet and the current federal investigation of him and the city of Palm Springs.

“We’ve been very careful not to get involved with anything that will put the tribe in danger,” Grubbe said. “I always thought that the mayor (Pougnet) did some good things for the city, and I had no idea about all these other things. I still don’t know what’s going on, and the tribe does not deal with those kinds of things. We’re far removed from it.”

Of course, everyone in the area is curious about the goings-on around the Spa Resort Casino in downtown Palm Springs. Grubbe and the other tribal members have thus far been tight-lipped regarding their plans, although he did offer some hints about what is to come.

“We’re excited about the plans and design for the new downtown hotel, about the style of the rooms, etc.,” Grubbe said.

According to Grubbe, the old Spa Resort hotel had to be torn down because of errors made when the building was constructed in the 1960s. He cited a poorly designed and located entrance as an example.

“We’re looking for possibilities to have a new hotel with an entrance from Indian Canyon (Drive),” Grubbe said. “We’re talking to our membership about all these ideas. We want to build something special to redefine the downtown.”

Tom Davis, the chief planning and development officer who’s been with the tribe since 1992, offered yet more hints. He said it was possible the tribe could construct two hotels downtown.

“I expect that sometime this year, the tribe will come up with a certain architectural plan for a spa development, and perhaps some type of a boutique hotel,” Davis said.

Davis also said the tribe expects the city to return the street portions of Calle Encilia and Andreas Road to the tribe.

“This is consistent with the Section 14 master plan and the existing agreements with the city,” Davis said.

Grubbe—a former football jock who stands tall at 6 foot 2 inches—also addressed the current lack of women on the tribal council.

“We’re a very democratic tribe,” he said. “We have a strong presence of women at our tribal meetings, and they tell us exactly how they feel. In the past, we had an all-female tribal council. We don’t have any women running now for the council, but I’m sure it’ll change.”

Published in Local Issues