By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A month after the Graton Resort & Casino opened to applause and trepidation and uncertainty, early reports likely provide fodder for both critics and supporters of the 3,000-slot-machine casino on Rohnert Park’s flank.
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said the casino is a busier site for law enforcement activity than the department had planned for.
After horrendous opening-day backups, traffic volume has returned to normal and uneventful levels, surprising law enforcement and even longtime casino foes.
And some local businesses report that the $800 million casino seems to be responsible for an uptick in economic activity.
“Are we waiting for the other shoe to drop? Maybe. I don’t know,” said Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, “but I’d have to say at the moment that there has not been a negative impact on the city of Rohnert Park.”
The casino’s opponents, who are still fighting it in court, scoff at that notion, pointing to what the Sheriff’s Office is reporting.
Between the Nov. 5 opening and Thursday, deputies assigned to the casino site have responded to about 200 calls on casino grounds, said Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Brown.
Those incidents have led to 34 reports being taken and 16 arrests, he said.
“The increase in incidents … clearly shows that casinos create crime, or at least drag it along with them,” said Marilee Montgomery, a leader of the Stop Graton Casino group.
“This is a rural area where there were previously very few incidents, maybe one a year in that location, if that. Now, there have been 200 incidents in one month,” she said. “It will only get worse over time.”
Brown said the Sheriff’s Office had planned to station two deputies at the casino over the course of a day but is using three instead.
“There’s more calls for service than we thought there would be,” he said, describing the incidents as ranging from assaults to public drunkenness to drug violations. “To be honest with you, it’s one of the busiest beats now in the county.”
Rohnert Park public safety officials said their sense is that there has been an increase in police activity outside the casino on city streets, but they cannot say for sure until statistics are compiled this week.
“The guys are saying, ‘Oh, man, it’s busier out there.’ But we expected that,” said Rohnert Park Lt. Jeff Taylor. “But I can’t tell you if a certain crime has increased. We believe that there has been an impact, but we believe it has been minimal.”
Officials at Station Casinos, which manages the casino for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, did not respond to a request for comment Friday about the level of law enforcement activity.
Aside from a rise in crime, many had feared a big and permanent jump in the region’s traffic volume as patrons flocked to the Bay Area’s largest casino. On Nov. 5, there was major gridlock and at one point traffic was stalled from Rohnert Park to Novato, lending credence to the concerns.
But traffic hasn’t approached that level since.
“Other than the opening day, to be quite honest, it’s just not been a major problem,” said Chip Worthington, for a decade one of the fiercest of casino opponents. But Worthington added that surface-street traffic does seem busier.
“After that first day, we really haven’t seen any impact on the freeway,” CHP Officer Jon Sloat said.
“For surface streets, we have noticed on the weekends that Golf Course Drive West (the main access road to the casino) has gotten backed up here and there, but not to the point where we’ve had to send officers to help,” Sloat said.
He said CHP officers have made fewer than five driving-under-the-influence arrests of people who had come from or were headed to the casino.
During the years of dispute over the casino, competing claims have been made that it would help or harm local businesses. This year, a Rohnert Park analysis projected that the city would take a hit of $511,000 in general fund revenue as the casino restaurants took business from other city eateries.
A month provides no conclusive evidence either way, but down the street from the casino, the restaurant Hooters reports it has seen business boosted.
“It’s actually been good for us,” said General Manager Dan Annis. “We’ve noticed a bit of an increase in sales. We’re staying open a little later at night.”
Across Highway 101, at the Doubletree Hotel, General Manager Steve Jung said there has been an increase in short-term demand for rooms.
“We think part of it is certainly driven by the casino,” he said.
Casino General Manager Joe Hasson declined to provide any specific measures of how business is doing.
Asked whether he has had to hire or let go employees based on demand in the first month, he said, “Graton Resort and Casino continues to hire colleagues in many positions.”
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org.