The opening later this year of the Graton Rancheria's huge casino in Rohnert Park holds the promise of economic betterment for its 1,300 tribal members, but also poses a threat in the form of powerful competition for other tribes with casinos.
The new gambling palace, conveniently situated along Highway 101 closer to the populous Bay Area, is predicted to siphon off customers accustomed to traveling farther north to River Rock, Sonoma County's only other Indian casino, as well as patrons of smaller casinos in Mendocino and Lake counties.
The Dry Creek Band of Pomo, which has enjoyed a 10-year monopoly on Indian gaming in the North Bay, is bracing for the hit to its River Rock Casino when the Rohnert Park facility opens late this year.
The new casino, rapidly rising next to the "Friendly City," will have 3,000 slot machines and 200 table games in a modern building, dwarfing the 1,200 slots and 20 tables in River Rock's tentlike structure on a scenic hill overlooking the Russian River and vineyards of Alexander Valley.
"There's no way with Graton coming online will we have the same revenue," Dry Creek Chairman Harvey Hopkins said. "I'm thinking 30 percent, or more, loss in revenue."
That could mean a loss of $37 million a year, based on 2010 income reports.
Hopkins predicts that smaller casinos to the north, which number six in Mendocino County and four in Lake County, also will feel the pain.
"It's going to strangle the other casinos that are up the 101 in Mendocino and Lake County. Their lifeblood is the Bay Area," said Doug Elmets, who represents five tribes, including those that operate Thunder Valley and Jackson Rancheria casinos, closer to Sacramento.
"The challenge smaller casinos will face is not only from Graton. They will be fighting tooth and nail for whatever scraps fall off the table," he said.
However, Graton Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris dismissed most of the predictions as conjecture and "hysteria." He contended that Graton's impact on existing casinos will be "minimal."
"The fact is, if you look at the Southern California model where big casinos are half an hour from each other, they're doing fine. There's enough to go around," he said.
He conceded some of River Rock's patrons initially may be curious and come to the Graton casino, which is expected to open by the first week of November. But he said "the clientele coming to us will be somewhat different."
Even small casinos clustered close to each other in Lake County "are doing equally well," Sarris said.
But one of those casinos, operated by Robinson Rancheria about 75 miles to the north in Upper Lake, filed an objection to Graton's state compact application last year, alleging the big new casino would interdict customers from Santa Rosa and the greater Bay Area.
Not only would it seriously threaten Robinson Rancheria's modest casino and others in Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino and Colusa counties, the tribe's business council claimed, it also will have negative impacts on tribal governments as far away as the Gold Country in the Sierras.
That sentiment isn't unanimous.
Coyote Valley Band Chairman Michael Hunter, whose tribe operates a casino with 250 slot machines and eight card tables north of Ukiah, predicted there will not be a major effect on his operation.