By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Indian casino-resort proposed for the outskirts of Rohnert Park cleared a crucial hurdle Friday, securing the state compact it needed before construction can start.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on a gaming contract was one of the final governmental agreements that the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria needed before moving ahead with the controversial $433 million project.
It could have up to 3,000 slot machines, 5,500 parking spaces, a 200-room hotel and restaurants and bars. If built to completion, it would become Sonoma County’s largest private employer and one of its most costly developments.
The project, to be built just west of the Scandia Family Fun Center, also would be the closest full-service casino to the entire Bay Area. No details were available Friday about a building schedule.
The 274-page compact outlines casino earnings that could rise above $400 million a year, spotlighting how it might transform the lives of the tribe’s roughly 1,300 members.
Tribal chairman Greg Sarris, who called local officials Friday to tell them the news, did not return phone calls or an email seeking comment.
But one of the tribe’s most prominent supporters said that casino profits could revive the longterm prospects of the tribe’s Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians.
“Let’s just hope that this really improves their lives,” said Connie Codding, majority shareholder of one of the county’s biggest development companies. “That’s what we’re all hoping for, that it will enable their children to get a better education and a better life.”
For opponents, including local legislators and community activists who have fought the casino for more than a decade, there was a sense the battle is now likely lost.
“I think we have to honestly say that the odds are pretty long against stopping it,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
He and others had sought to block it on the grounds it would spur other regional casinos, bring unwanted traffic and crime and harm the environment.
“We’re all deeply, deeply concerned about our quality of life and how it might be affected by the building of the casino,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose 3rd District borders the casino property.
The state Legislature and the federal Department of the Interior still need to ratify the compact, although such actions are typically routine. The Legislature has held up approvals before but is believed to have rejected only one, experts said.
Under terms approved by the National Indian Gaming Commission, the project, bordered on the north by Wilfred Avenue, is smaller than that the tribe originally proposed.
Still, the tribe estimates that the project will create 750 construction jobs when it is underway and and 2,250 jobs once it is complete.
“Sonoma County will benefit from the jobs that will be created,” said Lynn Cominsky, a Sonoma State University professor and a member of the Friends of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria.
The compact also requires the tribe to funnel $100 million into Sonoma County in its first seven years of operation, with more after that. The money would offset impacts on the environment, criminal justice and social service systems and traffic, among other areas.
About $40 million would go to the county, and another would $60 million would go to Rohnert Park.
That would be about 15 percent of the casino’s net winnings for “local communities and gambling mitigation and regulation,” Brown’s office said.
That makes the agreement the first in the state to explicitly require such payments to local jurisdictions, said Sonoma County deputy county counsel Jeff Brax.
“That’s to the tribe’s credit and the governor’s credit,” Brax said.
It also would set off a longterm injection of financial assistance for Rohnert Park. City leaders in 2003 negotiated a 20-year pact under which the tribe would, if its revenues met expectations, pay the city and various community groups about $200 million.
“Once this is in place, there will be fiscal benefits to the city,” said Mayor Jake Mackenzie, who first suggested the tribe could set up a casino in Rohnert Park but later cast the sole vote against the financial agreement.
Other Rohnert Park leaders said the council must now make sure the agreement’s terms are met.
“I’m not reassured until I see all the fine print,” said Councilman Amy Ahanotu. “My goal moving forward is to make sure that Rohnert Park is protected.”
Casino opponents, who have seen several lawsuits against it batted down, on Friday fastened on lawmakers as the place for a final stand.
“At this point our first line of defense is public protest to the legislature,” said Chip Worthington, a leader of Stop the Casino 101, a coalition of groups opposing the project.
“We’re not thinking at this point about mobilizing for a lawsuit; it’s about PR” to convince the Legislature to reject the compact, he said.
County officials had asked the governor to delay signing the compact until they’d had a chance to weigh in with their concerns, Zane said.
“So I’m deeply disappointed by the governor’s office’s failure to talk to us,” she said.
Representatives of the governor said there had been ample discussions.
“We worked closely with the county throughout this process and met with them many times over the last eight months,” said Jacob Appelsmith, a senior Brown adviser who negotiated key terms of the compact.
The county in 2008 negotiated its own agreement with the tribe, which said that if the county and the tribe could not agree on how to lessen the casino’s environmental impacts, they would enter into arbitration to resolve the differences.
Should the Legislature ratify the compact, negotiations between the county and the Federated Indians would then resume.
“It’s really about making sure that we’re not going to be out of pocket a dime,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose 2nd District includes the casino property.
The Graton tribe, which is working with Las Vegas-based Station Casinos as a business partner, already is permitted to open a similar Class II gaming facility with bingo slot machines and card tables.
While unwelcome, that would be far preferable, Worthington said.
“It’s the difference between a Santa Rosa Mall and a grocery store shopping center,” he said.
The federal government took the tribe’s 254-acre parcel of land into trust in 2010, effectively making it a reservation exempt from local regulations.
One unknown factor is whether the tribe and its backers have the financial means to undertake a development of such a size. According to the compact, the tribe has already spent more than $200 million on “pre-development costs.”
Also, the tribe last year did not make the $500,000 contribution it had made each year since 2004 to the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety.
Station Casinos declared bankruptcy in 2009, raising questions about is ability to complete the project. At the same time, though, it is moving ahead with a large Indian casino in Michigan.
The county’s only other Indian gaming establishment, the Dry Creek band of Pomo Indians’ River Rock Casino, opened in 2002 in the hills above Geyserville.
(Staff Writer Brett Wilkison contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)