By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
One of California’s largest casinos opens Tuesday outside Rohnert Park after a decade of bitter debate.
The belief that it will revive an economically struggling Indian tribe and the fear that it will forever alter Sonoma County hover over the new Graton Resort & Casino, 340,000 square feet of Las Vegas-like glitter planted squarely on the Santa Rosa Plain.
At $800 million, it is the most expensive private development project in Sonoma County history and is expected to instantly become a powerful player in the industry.
“It’s a force to be reckoned with in gaming,” said Dennis Whittlesey of Washington, D.C., a longtime Indian law attorney who has worked on numerous casino developments.
“The day they open, they’ll probably be one of the three biggest Indian casinos in the country. This is really a monster,” he said.
Starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 3,000 slot machines will beep, flash and ring. Playing cards will fall softly on the felt tops of 144 blackjack, poker and baccarat tables. Cigarette smoke will rise in some areas of the casino because no-smoking laws do not apply. The huge hall will feature, unusually, clocks and ample daylight. Four full-service restaurants and nine food court restaurants will open for business.
Thousands more vehicles are projected to crowd Highway 101 and leak onto surrounding roads. Perhaps 10,000 first-day customers will arrive by car, bus and limousine, drawn by an intense regional media blitz focusing on the casino’s proximity to San Francisco, Oakland and the East Bay. Multiple law enforcement agencies will mobilize to cope with the initial rush, which officials say will last a few weeks, or longer.
The casino, owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and managed by one of Las Vegas’ most established operators, Station Casinos, will remain open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, employing 2,000 full-time workers and attracting millions of patrons. Hundreds of millions of dollars are expected to change hands the first year alone.
The days before the opening have been filled with celebrations. Many of the tribe’s 1,300 members attended an inaugural party Friday. A range of community members and elected officials — Gov. Jerry Brown among them — attended a private Saturday night event.
But the festivities veiled the fierce, conflicting feelings about the gambling palace that linger.
There has never been much neutral ground around the Graton Rancheria’s casino project, which surfaced in 2003. It has ignited controversy, anger, aspirations and division unlike any North Bay development since completion of Warm Springs Dam near Healdsburg in 1983.
“This was pretty high up there in terms of people who liked it and people who didn’t,” said former Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown.
Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris would not comment for this article, but from the first, Graton Rancheria officials described the project as a way to lift tribal members out of poverty and carve them a brighter future. They promised Sonoma County would benefit, too, through thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in shared revenues.
Agreements the tribe signed with local governments will pay Sonoma County about $9 million a year for 20 years to address negative impacts of the casino, and a total of $251 million over 20 years to Rohnert Park for public safety, education and other community services.
Prominent community members and labor leaders were among those offering vocal support for the tribe from early on. They said the change in Indian fortunes would be justice due. And the casino would be an enlightened neighbor, they said, citing deals it struck with its Las Vegas partner that the gambling palace would be built by, and would employ, union-scale labor.
On the cusp of the casino’s opening, they remain as enthusiastic as ever.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” said Wes Winter, executive director of the Family Justice Center and an early member of the now-inactive Friends of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria group.
“It’s going to be such an economic driver for the county, and the jobs it’s providing are incredible,” Winter said. “But most importantly, it’s what it’s doing for the tribe. The tribe is getting the validation that they deserve, and they’re going to have the income they need.”
A 2007 survey of Graton Rancheria members found that 71 percent of respondents in the tribe’s eight-county service area were low-income. A 2004 report found that 72 percent of tribal households earned $50,000 or less.
But the casino touched off instant protests that have endured. Opponents say it will bring social, economic and environmental ills to Sonoma County that will change its nature forever, drain groundwater supplies, tear families apart with addiction and pack the highway with visitors’ vehicles.
Community meetings about the project bubbled with rage. Anonymous violent threats were made against tribal leaders. Recall efforts were mounted against Rohnert Park politicians perceived as supporting the tribe. Legislators were lobbied. Lawsuits were filed.
Although the casino already is operating like a mini-city on Rohnert Park’s outskirts, opponents continue to fight it in court. They are appealing a judge’s ruling against their latest legal argument: that the tribe does not have sovereign rights over its 254-acre reservation by Highway 101, thus making the casino illegal.
Their fury is unabated as opening day looms.
“You can take a garbage can and put glitter on it and paint it up, and it’s still a garbage can,” said Chip Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who has led the opposition to the casino for a decade.
“What a waste of time, money and resources; this is just going to destroy lives,” said Worthington, who heads the Stop Graton Casino group behind the legal challenges.
But with Tuesday’s opening a certainty, the feelings of some opponents have turned more anxious than livid.
“I’m not angry; I’m worried,” said Laurie Alderman of Cotati, a retired occupational therapist who grew up near the new casino on Golf Course Drive West (formerly Wilfred Avenue).
“I’m worried about traffic, property values, quality of life,” said Alderman, who believes the casino was helped by political favoritism and is contrary to the vision of tribal gambling outlined in Proposition 1A, the voter initiative that in 2000 legalized Nevada-style casinos on reservations in California.
The tribe’s 254 acres of land just south of Home Depot were purchased initially by Station Casinos in 2005 and became a tribal reservation in 2010 when the federal government took it into trust. The tribe’s contract with the state allowing it to operate the casino took effect in 2012, and shortly afterward it secured $850 million in financing. Work started last June and proceeded at a whirlwind pace.
“What you see is what $825 million buys you,” Sarris said last month during a tour he led for news media around the casino.
Throughout Southern California and the Inland Empire, large tribal casinos have been an increasing part of the landscape since 2000. While controversy has attended them in years past, it largely has died away, and they have become accepted aspects of the region’s culture and economy.
Whether, beyond its most dedicated foes, the lightning-rod nature of Graton Rancheria’s casino will eventually recede remains to be seen. Regardless, after 10 years of hard-fought battles, it has arrived.
“It came in with a bang, and hopefully it will become more of a whimper,” said former county Supervisor Ernie Carpenter. “I hope the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s here; it’s going to have an impact.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or email@example.com.
3,000 slot machines:
By comparison, River Rock Casino has 1,250 slot machines, while the Mashantucket Pequot tribe’s Foxwood Resorts Casino in Connecticut has 6,300.
144 house-banked table games, with a minimum $10 bet. Tables break down like this:
Pai Gow poker 14
3-card poker 5
4-card poker 5
Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em 5
18 player-vs.-player tables in the poker room:
Get in with $1 or $2 bets. Entirely non-smoking.
$5 to $100:
Range of bets in the high-limit slot room, which has 48 machines.
Maximum bet in the high-limit tables room, which has six baccarat and six blackjack tables. Bets start at $25.
4 full-service restaurants:
Daily Grill, 630 Park Steakhouse, Tony’s Pizza and M.Y. China.
All are non-smoking.
3 non-smoking gaming areas:
In addition to the poker room, there are two slot areas on the casino floor that are non-smoking. They’re located just outside the poker room and by the Daily Grill and Tony’s Pizza restaurants.