It took a crane just six minutes and 20 seconds to swing the 75-foot, 7-ton steel beam into its place over the valet entrance of what will become the Bay Area's largest casino resort.

That seemed to capture the speed at which the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria casino project -- in the works since 2003 and still facing lawsuits to stop it -- is progressing now on Rohnert Park's northwest edge.

"We'll be ready later this year to open the doors and say hello to thousands and thousands of guests," said Joe Hasson, general manager of the $800 million gambling palace now well into the construction phase.

He spoke at a Tuesday ceremony held to mark the end of structural work, an event attended by 300 to 400 workers.

Now comes the "big push through the finish phase into the opening," said Jeff Janakus, vice president of design and construction for Station Casinos, the Las Vegas company that is to manage the Graton Resort and Casino for seven years.

Behind him stood the massive skeleton of the 322,000-square-foot building that will house 3,000 slot machines. Mounted on the final steel beam as it was set in place were an American flag and, for good luck, a small tree.

The job started in June, and is on schedule, said Janakus, and as much as possible is being done so that work can continue through the winter.

Base rock is laid on unpaved areas of the 66-acre building site so that workers can get around even if it rains, and a temporary roof has been erected so interior work can carry on regardless of the weather.

"We're driving the exterior wall schedule as fast as possible," he said. And on dry days, two crews are on that job to make up for time lost to wet weather.

A 200-room hotel is planned for the future, probably to the south of the casino, though no date is set for work to start on that, Hasson said. The building site is on the northwest corner of the Graton Rancheria's 254-acre reservation.

No official representatives of the Graton Rancheria were at the ceremony, but labor leaders on hand said the tribe and its chairman, Greg Sarris, were to be applauded for bringing good jobs to Sonoma County.

"He's the one who made it happen; it's his vision and determination, and the tribe's," said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.

A phalanx of construction workers in green and orange vests applauded when Hasson, referring to the 2,000 people he said the casino would employ when it opens, told them, "You're building a future that is very, very bright for everyone involved."

The job itself has been a boon to an industry that has been savaged by the recession and slow recovery, some local workers said.

"Without this job I'd probably be sitting at home," said Alec Giddings of Windsor, a Ghilotti Construction excavator who has been working on a pump station at the casino site. He said he expected another week on the job and that the two-month assignment would help him get by until the next one.

"It's been a lifesaver," said Steve Benjamin, a Santa Rosa electrician who said he'd been out of work six months before starting on the casino job.

"We've had three years of probably the worst unemployment in 30 years," said Benjamin, sitting at table with other electricians nodding in agreement. "A lot of the guys here have been out of work for more than two years."

Gary Giuliani, the job steward for the electrical workers union, IBEW, said he expects to bring on an additional 10-12 electricians soon to join the current complement of 27. "Hopefully we're all here until the end of the job," Giuliani said.

The casino is similar in scale to the largest that Station Casinos has developed, a facility it owns and runs in Las Vegas. On Tuesday, Hasson gave some sense of the company's ambitions for the new casino when he was asked about the target audience.

"We'll certainly draw from the Bay Area and a radius that is equivalent to that," he said. "And I believe our reach can readily go as far as Sacramento."

Then he said, "Beyond that, it's just a short flight to San Francisco or Oakland from anywhere in America."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.