By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SACRAMENTO — The head of the Indian tribe that plans to build a Las Vegas-style casino outside Rohnert Park said Tuesday its agreement with the state allowing the project to start will be good in a “new and novel way” for all involved, including the larger North Bay community.
“We created something that will indeed benefit Indian and non-Indian alike,” said Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, during a three-hour state Senate committee meeting.
The 20-year compact signed March 27 by Gov. Jerry Brown still requires a two-thirds vote of approval by the Legislature. An Assembly committee is to hold a similar hearing today.
Sarris’ comments were the first time in at least three years that he — or any tribal member — has spoken publicly about the proposed casino, which would sit on a 254-acre parcel of land just west of the Scandia entertainment complex.
Seated next a senior Brown administration adviser, Sarris and the tribe’s attorney fielded questions from sometimes skeptical lawmakers about the intricate financial details of the compact and the hundreds of millions of dollars committed to Rohnert Park and Sonoma County.
And representatives of Station Casinos, the Las Vegas company that is bankrolling the casino, revealed that they would be seeking more than $700 million in bonds and other financing for the project, a dramatic increase from earlier estimates of $433 million.
They also said that a proposed six-story, 200-room hotel would be built later, at an undetermined time.
Proponents representing a variety of labor unions said the project would bring much-needed jobs to the North Bay.
But more than a dozen opponents voiced environmental and traffic concerns and also touched on gambling addiction and other social impacts of the casino, which would have up to 3,000 slot machines and would be the largest in close proximity to the Bay Area.
“If mitigations are arranged, I believe it would be like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic — it will be a catastrophe ahead,” said Elaine Richter of Rohnert Park.
The 247-page compact outlines the conditions required for the tribe to build and operate the casino and breaks new ground by requiring agreements to be in place between the tribe and surrounding jurisdictions to address a range of casino impacts.
It requires the tribe to finalize understandings with the county and Rohnert Park about how the tribe will financially offset effects on traffic, the environment and criminal justice and social service systems. The tribe would have to funnel about $100 million in casino profits into Sonoma County in its first seven years of operation and more after that.
Comments by the committee chairman, Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Los Angeles, indicated some of the lawmaker concerns the compact may have to surmount.
“The promises are great,” Wright said, “but there seem to be a lot of people counting on dollars that may not materialize. What happens if those dollars fail?”
“The ultimate test,” replied Jacob Applesmith a senior adviser to the governor, “is that now the tribe has to go out and sell bonds to build this casino.” The bond market for casino financing is “incredibly sophisticated,” he said, and would be a good gauge of the project’s feasibility.
In response to other questions from lawmakers, Applesmith, who negotiated key parts of the compact, said: “We do have the ability to shut them down if they are not living up to their responsibilities” regarding payments to the county, Rohnert Park and the state. That, he said, would be an “extreme” and unfavorable last resort.
Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said that the agreement detailing how much the tribe will pay the county to address casino impacts should be in place before the compact is approved.
“There’s a lot to like here,” she said. “But my practice in every compact I’ve ever voted on is to make sure that local land use issues are resolved. Given the efforts that have gone into this so far, why haven’t they been worked out?”
“They’re waiting for the compact to be done before they negotiate with us,” Sarris said.
“Unfortunately, usually it’s the reverse,” Evans said.
“They can’t break ground without an agreement with the county,” Applesmith said.
Later, during more than an hour of objections from critics, Robert O’Dell, who said he lives 1,000 yards from the site of the proposed casino, said: “It’s like a tsunami coming, I see no way of getting out of the way of this.”
“There are a lot of people like me who are going to be turned out of their houses because of this casino,” he said. “I feel helpless and I’m upset and angry.”
Dawna Gallagher, of the Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater Steering Committee, was one of several speakers who urged lawmakers to take science into account. They said the casino, which would not be connected the county’s water supply pipelines, would draw on wells and deplete the groundwater aquifer beyond repair.
“There is no way to mitigate no water, there’s no making any more,” said Gallagher, a former Rohnert Park Councilwoman. “It’s not an idle threat; it’s hydrology.”
“If they (wells) go dry we have to leave, we have nowhere to live, said Selena Polston, an organic farmer who lives about 1-1/2 miles from the proposed project.
Tribal attorney John Maier said those concerns had been addressed in voluminous environmental reports and mitigation measures that require, among other things, the tribe to use recycled water in its operations and to dig new wells that run dry as a result of the project.
Much of the support for the project came labor leaders, who said the tribe had agreed to use union workers both during construction and after.
“This is huge for us,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council. The region’s construction industry is suffering from 45 percent unemployment, which has taken a toll in “divorces, foreclosures, suicides,” and that the casino was a beacon of hope, she said.
The proposed casino, the tribe says, would create about more than 900 construction jobs and more than 2,000 permanent jobs.
Susan Moore of Santa Rosa, who leads an informal community advisory group to the tribe, said the way the Federated Indians shaped a compact with such extensive revenue-sharing provisions makes it a “model for the nation, not just for California.”
No Sonoma County officials spoke at the hearing, but Rohnert Park City Manager Gabe Gonzalez represented the city.
He did not speak for or against the compact, but said the city views the casino project as a “planning” and “land use issue,” and that “as we move forward there are unknowns.”
“We have a strong working relationship with the tribe and we expect this to continue,” Gonzalez said.
Rohnert Park Mayor Jake Mackenzie in a telephone interview said “there was no reason for the City Council to be present.”
“We have been very clear that that (the compact) was between the tribe and the governor’s office and this is the work of the Legislature, to ratify or not to ratify,” he said. “We have to wait for this process to play out and then we will deal with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s project.”
Rohnert Park expects $200 million from the deal it signed with the tribe in 2005
In his introductory remarks, Sarris pointed out subjugations Indians have endured – from “slavery” to being “indentured servants” to being “so-called homeless Indians” – and said the tribe had tried to pursue routes to economic stability other than a casino.
“We had no collateral” to get loans for other ventures, he said. “We didn’t have other options.”
The casino operation will allow the tribe “to once again be engaged, empowered members of citizens of our community and control our own destiny,” he said.
The speed at which the month-old compact arrived at the Legislature — months earlier than many observers had originally expected — and rumors that it may go to a full vote as early as Thursday were a concern to some other tribes, critics and local lawmakers.
“It’s clearly an effort to get this through before the tribes can get organized against it,” said Michael Lombardi, chairman of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians’ gaming commission in Riverside County.
Worries of other Indian gambling operations, including north of Sonoma County, were evident in the analysis of the Federated Indians compact given to committee members Tuesday.
It said the Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians, who operate a 600-slot machine casino and resort in Upper Lake, fear that the Rohnert Park casino could put them and other smaller regional Indian casinos out of business “by effectively interdicting the customers from the Santa Rosa and Greater S.F. Bay areas on which those tribes depend for their survival.”
Chip Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who has spearheaded the casino opposition for nine years, said that “many people in Sonoma County don’t know about this hearing, I would hope things could slow down.”
And Evans said after the hearing, “The fact that it’s going so quickly alarms me and others.”
She said she has been unable to find out why. “Nobody seems to be taking responsibility for moving it so quickly, it’s odd,” she said.
Assemblyman Isidore Hall, D-Los Angeles, introduced the bill, AB 517, that put the compact before the Legislature for discussion and called for it to be an urgency statute, meaning that it would take effect immediately rather than in 2013.
The bill explains that it is necessary so that the revenue sharing goes into effect “at the earliest possible time.”
In an email, Hall, who is chairman of the Assembly committee that reviews the bill today, said the compact requires the tribe to pay more than $10 million a year toward reimbursing the state for regulating gambling and also into special state funds that go to assist Indian tribes that don’t have their own gambling operations.
Those funds are running dry, he said, and when they do, the state general fund is required to backfill them.