Graton Resort & Casino's big moment arrives after decade of debate

  • Raquel Dogan, center, Yee Chongok, right, and Mark Ma practice dealing table games at the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park on Tuesday, October 29, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Starting at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 3,000 slot machines will beep, flash and ring. Playing cards will fall softly on the felt tops of 144 blackjack, poker and baccarat tables. Cigarette smoke will rise in some areas of the casino because no-smoking laws do not apply. The huge hall will feature, unusually, clocks and ample daylight. Four full-service restaurants and nine food court restaurants will open for business.

Thousands more vehicles are projected to crowd Highway 101 and leak onto surrounding roads. Perhaps 10,000 first-day customers will arrive by car, bus and limousine, drawn by an intense regional media blitz focusing on the casino's proximity to San Francisco, Oakland and the East Bay. Multiple law enforcement agencies will mobilize to cope with the initial rush, which officials say will last a few weeks, or longer.

The casino, owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and managed by one of Las Vegas' most established operators, Station Casinos, will remain open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, employing 2,000 full-time workers and attracting millions of patrons. Hundreds of millions of dollars are expected to change hands the first year alone.

The days before the opening have been filled with celebrations. Many of the tribe's 1,300 members attended an inaugural party Friday. A range of community members and elected officials — Gov. Jerry Brown among them — attended a private Saturday night event.

But the festivities veiled the fierce, conflicting feelings about the gambling palace that linger.

There has never been much neutral ground around the Graton Rancheria's casino project, which surfaced in 2003. It has ignited controversy, anger, aspirations and division unlike any North Bay development since completion of Warm Springs Dam near Healdsburg in 1983.

"This was pretty high up there in terms of people who liked it and people who didn't," said former Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown.

Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris would not comment for this article, but from the first, Graton Rancheria officials described the project as a way to lift tribal members out of poverty and carve them a brighter future. They promised Sonoma County would benefit, too, through thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in shared revenues.

Agreements the tribe signed with local governments will pay Sonoma County about $9 million a year for 20 years to address negative impacts of the casino, and a total of $251 million over 20 years to Rohnert Park for public safety, education and other community services.

Prominent community members and labor leaders were among those offering vocal support for the tribe from early on. They said the change in Indian fortunes would be justice due. And the casino would be an enlightened neighbor, they said, citing deals it struck with its Las Vegas partner that the gambling palace would be built by, and would employ, union-scale labor.

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