Ten years ago, two tent-like structures sprang up seemingly overnight on a steep hill overlooking Alexander Valley, quietly ushering in a new era for gambling in Sonoma County.
It was an inauspicious debut for River Rock Casino: just 60 slot machines at the end of a muddy, pot-holed road, a lack of parking and restrooms in modular buildings.
But the Sept. 15, 2002, opening signaled the arrival of Las Vegas-style gambling on Indian lands, authorized by California voters two years before.
Residents of the scenic valley had fears of a glitzy, garish casino to come, with hordes of players and tour buses clogging the road to the Dry Creek Rancheria. Naysayers believed "we were going to spoil the land, take this wonderful valley and desecrate it," recalls Dry Creek Pomo tribal elder Reg Elgin, 73, who spoke to city councils and community groups to seek support for the casino.
"I said we would contribute to community, provide jobs and cherish the land," he said.
But the hostility was so high, "I used to get death threats," said Elgin, a Marine Corps veteran and retired college administrator.
Although evidence of Pomo villages go back thousands of years in the area and the Dry Creek Band of Pomo has had its 75-acre rancheria there since 1915, "people would say &‘Why don't you go home where you came from,'" he said.
The 24-hour casino overlooking the Russian River off Highway 128 between Geyserville and Healdsburg would soon expand to 1,600 slot machines, 20 blackjack and poker tables, a buffet restaurant and eventually a bar following a protracted fight over a liquor license.
In a little more than five years, River Rock grew into a $140 million annual enterprise and one of the county's 30 largest companies, employing 680 people. Since then, the recession and hike in the price of gasoline have cut into attendance at River Rock, reducing its workforce and revenues.
But it still draws 1.3 million visitors a year, according to casino officials, who also say they intend to expand in a few more years with a permanent gaming hall, a 150- to 200-room hotel and additional restaurants. The current plans envision a more modest version of a $300 million Tuscan-themed, luxury hotel and casino the tribe announced before the economy soured and financing dried up.
The expansion is driven by a competitive threat to the south that will end River Rock's monopoly on Indian gaming in Sonoma County. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have started their long-stalled casino-resort in Rohnert Park just west of Highway 101, expected to open by late next year.
"When you see a big casino like that coming on line with 3,000 machines, or 5,000 machines, whatever it is they're putting in there, it's a big hit north," said Dry Creek Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins.
He predicted it will also impact the near dozen smaller Indian casinos to the north in Mendocino and Lake counties.
"It's going to hit everybody," he said, anticipating that some of River Rock's labor force and patrons will be lost to Rohnert Park.
"Three quarters of every day — my day — is spent planning just for this," River Rock Chief Executive David Fendrick said of the dent the competition will make.
He also expects Rohnert Park will grow the gambling market, increasing the number of people who visit casinos.