At precisely 10 a.m. today, the number of tribal casinos in California will increase from 68 to 69. The number of operating slot machines will increase by 3,000. And the number of vehicles on Highway 101 and local streets in and near west Rohnert Park is expected to increase by some 10,000.
All are due to the long-anticipated opening of the $800 million Graton Resort & Casino, said to be the third largest casino in the nation.
At the same time, the long list of unanswered questions that have revolved this project for more than 10 years will be reduced by at least one: Will the casino ever open? With much fanfare, including a Chinese dragon dance, the answer will soon be evident.
Whether you rank among those who eagerly anticipate the opening of this gaming institution owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria or remain wary of the long-term impacts of a massive casino in a residential community, this project comes loaded with emotions.
It also comes with many lingering questions, such as: Will the casino, with its four full-service restaurants and nine food court offerings, draw the estimated 6 million visits — more than half from San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties — projected by year two? Will it come close to generating the estimated $533 million in annual gaming revenues, as projected in a study, produced for Station Casinos, the Las Vegas-based company that will manage the casino? And will the facility capture nearly 90 percent of the casino business from Sonoma County residents in its second full year of operation, as the study suggests?
Meanwhile, will the casino, as some opponents have feared, drain the area's groundwater supplies while flooding the region with cars, buses and limousines?
Some of these will only be answered with time.
For now, the primary focus will be traffic. But even there, locals should be wary about drawing any conclusions.
The California Highway Patrol along with the Rohnert Park police and Sonoma County Sheriff's Office will have extra staff on patrol for today's opening. As Staff Writer Jeremy Hay reported on Monday, Rohnert Park will have five additional officers on traffic duty and has also contracted to have five additional CHP officers to help out on monitoring traffic on city streets.
While officials are wisely planning for the worst, and that may prove to be the case, what will be more telling is how the traffic patterns look after the first week or so. What long-term mitigations will be needed, if any, will become more evident at that point.
Over the years, this newspaper has raised many concerns and questions about the location and the plans for this facility. But there's no disputing that the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria deserves recognition for its efforts in building a facility that fits more with the Sonoma County landscape than a Las Vegas strip, all while setting a new standard for community-tribal partnerships in California.
It bears repeating that in addition to agreeing to pay the city of Rohnert Park more than $250 million over 20 years to deal with traffic and other issues, the Graton tribe reached an unprecedented agreement to pay the county $9 million a year for the next 20 years.
Overall, the Graton Casino and Resort is expected to provide up to $100 million a year in financial gains for the area. For many in a region still struggling to emerge from recent economic doldrums, that's worth a red carpet.