By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Ten years ago, two tent-like structures sprang up seemingly overnight on a steep hill overlooking Alexander Valley, quietly ushering in a new era for gambling in Sonoma County.
It was an inauspicious debut for River Rock Casino: just 60 slot machines at the end of a muddy, pot-holed road, a lack of parking and restrooms in modular buildings.
But the Sept. 15, 2002, opening signaled the arrival of Las Vegas-style gambling on Indian lands, authorized by California voters two years before.
Residents of the scenic valley had fears of a glitzy, garish casino to come, with hordes of players and tour buses clogging the road to the Dry Creek Rancheria. Naysayers believed “we were going to spoil the land, take this wonderful valley and desecrate it,” recalls Dry Creek Pomo tribal elder Reg Elgin, 73, who spoke to city councils and community groups to seek support for the casino.
“I said we would contribute to community, provide jobs and cherish the land,” he said.
But the hostility was so high, “I used to get death threats,” said Elgin, a Marine Corps veteran and retired college administrator.
Although evidence of Pomo villages go back thousands of years in the area and the Dry Creek Band of Pomo has had its 75-acre rancheria there since 1915, “people would say ‘Why don’t you go home where you came from,’” he said.
The 24-hour casino overlooking the Russian River off Highway 128 between Geyserville and Healdsburg would soon expand to 1,600 slot machines, 20 blackjack and poker tables, a buffet restaurant and eventually a bar following a protracted fight over a liquor license.
In a little more than five years, River Rock grew into a $140 million annual enterprise and one of the county’s 30 largest companies, employing 680 people. Since then, the recession and hike in the price of gasoline have cut into attendance at River Rock, reducing its workforce and revenues.
But it still draws 1.3 million visitors a year, according to casino officials, who also say they intend to expand in a few more years with a permanent gaming hall, a 150- to 200-room hotel and additional restaurants. The current plans envision a more modest version of a $300 million Tuscan-themed, luxury hotel and casino the tribe announced before the economy soured and financing dried up.
The expansion is driven by a competitive threat to the south that will end River Rock’s monopoly on Indian gaming in Sonoma County. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have started their long-stalled casino-resort in Rohnert Park just west of Highway 101, expected to open by late next year.
“When you see a big casino like that coming on line with 3,000 machines, or 5,000 machines, whatever it is they’re putting in there, it’s a big hit north,” said Dry Creek Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins.
He predicted it will also impact the near dozen smaller Indian casinos to the north in Mendocino and Lake counties.
“It’s going to hit everybody,” he said, anticipating that some of River Rock’s labor force and patrons will be lost to Rohnert Park.
“Three quarters of every day — my day — is spent planning just for this,” River Rock Chief Executive David Fendrick said of the dent the competition will make.
He also expects Rohnert Park will grow the gambling market, increasing the number of people who visit casinos.
Fendrick said River Rock will intensify direct mail and promotions to its customers, who are entered into a “player development program” and a sophisticated database.
“Our business model will change to some degree. We’ll still have a viable business. We’ll pay our bills. We’ll make our payments,” he said of the $200 million in bond debt refinancing the casino incurred last year.
After its rocky start, River Rock has gained a measure of acceptance from area residents, many of whom were opposed to a gambling hall amid one of Sonoma County’s premiere grape-growing areas.
The highly visible steel-framed, circus-like tents on the graded hill were described as a “monstrosity” by county officials when the casino opened. County officials complained there was not adequate environmental review and that fire safety, erosion and traffic issues were not sufficiently addressed.
A prominent seven-story parking garage visible from Highway 101 miles away opened in early 2005. It further incensed Alexander Valley residents who said the tribe had initially denied it was building a casino, then tried to explain the work on the garage as hillside stabilization.
Those conflicts largely have been resolved.
“There is a culture of collaboration between the county and the tribal board of directors,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district includes the casino. “I heartily appreciate — and sincerely mean this — how accessible the tribal board of directors has been on issues.”
The era of cooperation was clinched with a $100 million revenue-sharing agreement the tribe struck with the county in 2008 to offset casino expansion impacts.
After the expansion was put on hold, payments to the county were scaled back almost in half, to $3.5 million per year. A majority of that goes to pay for round-the-clock sheriff’s deputies at River Rock and the north county beat. The tribe also created goodwill with donations, including $1.4 million to the Geyserville School District, $1.8 million to Healdsburg District Hospital and $500,000 to the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
In partnership with the county the tribe also has secured funds from a federal transportation program that helps Indian tribes improve roads on and off their reservations. The first installment of $200,000 is going for a new overlay of Geyserville Avenue between the freeway off-ramp and Highway 128.
Next year, the tribe will seek up to $1 million to repair the Jimtown Bridge over the Russian River on Alexander Valley Road.
Both projects involve routes taken by the average of 30 tour buses daily that move through the valley bringing casino patrons from as far as South San Francisco, Oakland and Concord.
“Needless to say, they’ve pounded the hell out of the roads with their buses and that’s stuff they’re also working on repairing,” said Harry Bosworth, a fourth-generation resident of Geyserville who owns the old-fashioned Bosworth and Son mercantile store.
Whether it’s buying up nearby vineyards to start a wine business or subsidizing the nearby Geyserville Fire Department, the casino and the tribe have become part of the fabric of northern Sonoma County.
“We’re players. We’re players in the community,” said River Rock CEO Fendrick.
“Our commitment to the community has never stopped,” said Tribal Chairman Hopkins. “The community commitment to us has finally begun.”
“A lot of people have seen maybe we aren’t as bad as they had heard we were going to be,” said tribal elder Elgin. “Maybe some of the antagonisms and mistrust are gone.”
The tribe’s $336,000 annual subsidy to the fire district has bolstered an alliance that beefed up emergency response capability in the north county as well as at River Rock.
“The most common call we have up there will be an older Asian woman who came in on the 4 a.m. bus, sat down in front of a slot machine and later that evening hasn’t eaten or drank and passed out from fatigue,” said Geyserville Fire Chief Paul Pigoni. “They gamble ‘til they drop.”
The fire department found the problems with alcohol were less than expected.
“We had envisioned wrecks all over the place and drunks hanging out of car windows,” said Bosworth, who is also president of the Geyserville fire board.
Fire Chief Pigoni said there are about a half-dozen vehicle accidents per year involving people coming and going from the casino. So far, there has been only one known alcohol-related fatal crash. It involved a 39-year-old Santa Rosa woman with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit.
The number of alcohol-related crashes associated with the casino has been “very, very low,” Pigoni said. He said that may be due to the extra Highway Patrol officers and sheriff deputies near the casino, as well as the training River Rock staff receives to avoid serving customers who overimbibe.
Officials with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said there have been no complaints or violations involving the casino’s liquor license.
The casino obtained its license after the county agreed to drop its opposition to the application if the tribe restricted alcohol to the bar and restaurant and not serve on the gambling floor. Drinks also are not allowed after midnight.
But Chairman Hopkins indicated the tribe might seek to amend some of those conditions if the Graton Rancheria gets a more permissive license allowing alcohol at slot machines and gaming tables.
Not serving alcohol on the floor “has been very hard on us. But we’ve done it,” he said.
CEO Fendrick declined to release financial information, saying simply the casino is “doing well.”
“That sounds very vague. But we’re doing good,” he said.
The casino stopped publicly reporting its revenues after restructuring its debt last year, although it still divulges income details to bondholders. It reported $124 million in revenue in 2010, the last full year results were available publicly.
Tribal leaders say the casino has financially benefitted its almost 1,100 members in many ways. It provides money for home purchase downpayments and rental assistance, as well as for college scholarships and tuition, Pomo language and cultural programs and burial payment assistance.
But the casino has far from enriched tribal members. Tribal members over 18 get a monthly allowance of about $600 from casino revenues.
The most recent statistics from the Bureau of Indian Affairs showed that in 2005, there was a 38 percent unemployment rate for Dry Creek Pomos and more than one-third of those employed were below federal poverty guidelines.
It’s a better picture, however, than most tribes in the Pacific region, which averaged 49 percent unemployment.
“We have really crossed a lot of boundaries here because of gaming,” Hopkins said.