Cloverdale tribe forging ahead with casino plan

Plans for a large casino, hotel and entertainment center in Cloverdale are once again moving forward, despite doubts as to whether it can compete with the recently opened Graton Resort & Casino outside Rohnert Park.

The $320 million casino project planned by the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians is in the final phase of an environmental review, one of the last steps before the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs can clear the way for gambling on the 65 acres the tribe proposes to develop.

Leaders of the 540-member tribe say they still are committed to the project, although they acknowledge it might be reduced from the proposed size of 596,000 square feet, which would make it the biggest Las Vegas-style casino venue in the county.

"What they are going to build will depend largely on market conditions — on what the market will bear," tribal spokesman Rob Muelrath said Friday.

But even on a smaller scale, there are plenty of skeptics as to whether a casino in Cloverdale is viable, given the new Graton casino's advantage in proximity to the populous Bay Area and heart of Sonoma County.

"They're going to be trying to build a substantial casino in the shadow of a large gaming enterprise between them and San Francisco," said Doug Elmets, who represents five tribes, including those that operate Thunder Valley and Jackson Rancheria casinos closer to Sacramento.

"It's a giant leap to build something when they have a small footprint from which to gather a patron base," he said. "If they are reliant upon the locals' market, they already have established competition from smaller casinos that are probably barely holding on because of Graton."

Alex Bumazhny, a director with Fitch Ratings in New York who analyzes the gambling market, said, "It's possible before Graton this project could have made sense. At this point, it's more questionable."

He said financing for a project could come from bonds or through banks, but "something like that would be pretty difficult to finance, either way."

Bumazhny said that with Graton's more convenient location, about 35 miles to the south along Highway 101, "it will be very difficult in terms of competing for the San Francisco market. There is not a local population base of support, that I know of."

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