s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

Thousands of people from around the Bay Area descended on the Graton Resort & Casino for its debut Tuesday, clogging surrounding roads and forcing the casino to temporarily close its doors to long lines of gamblers waiting outside.

Casino officials would not say how many people came on opening day, but by 11 a.m., two hours after the casino opened, an estimated 5,000 or more people were inside, hoping for jackpots in an atmosphere that at times bordered on frantic. It was like Times Square, all flashing neon and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that made it tough to walk.

Outside, the casino's 5,700 parking spaces were mostly full. Highway 101 was backed up beyond the Cotati Grade and traffic stopped cold on neighboring streets. The nearest major intersection, at Redwood Drive and Golf Course Drive West, was closed. People frustrated by the deadlocked traffic parked their cars in any nearby parking lot available and walked over.

"Many, many people are parking a considerable distance away and walking in," said CHP Officer Jon Sloat. "It's seriously like the dumbest zombie movie you've ever seen. They're coming from everywhere."

Inside, virtually all of 3,000 slot machines were occupied, with onlookers gathered around to watch the steady spin of numbers and symbols. The 144 poker, baccarat and blackjack tables were filled. Even the high-limit room was seeing action. The three bars were crowded.

"Until I run out of money," said Joe DeSena, 53, a San Francisco union representative, describing how long he planned to stay.

Hundreds of people waited at the casino's three entrances to be let in. Security guards kept them at bay and guided them into lines. Some visitors said they'd been told the wait would be hours.

On its opening day, the $800 million casino, which is owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and has been planned for a decade, was living up to the hopes of its backers and fans and also fulfilling some of its opponents' worst fears.

"Many people work their entire lives and they don't have the satisfaction of completing, or accomplishing or winning, for that matter," said Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris. "We've worked very hard and, in this case, we won. So I'm full of gratitude."

"I expected every seat to be filled, and they are," said Joe Hasson, general manager of the gambling palace, 340,000 square feet of vintage Las Vegas set by the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

Chip Worthington was going to stage a protest against the casino but decided he didn't want to be blamed for stopping traffic -- which was as bad as he and other casino foes long predicted it would be.

"Everything we said is true," said Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who leads the Stop Graton Casino group, which has fought the project for a decade and is still battling it in court.

"It causes air pollution, traffic pollution, people are spending money that they can't afford to gamble," Worthington said.

But on Tuesday, they came in Mercedes and tour buses, pickups and minivans. They came alone or in large groups. They came in stiletto heels and bedroom slippers, cowboy boots, spit-shined dress shoes and sneakers.

There was a man in a shining jacket that appeared to be made of silver snake skin. A man in a crisp, gray linen suit had perfect white hair and a pink pocket handkerchief. Women wore cocktail dresses; others dressed in San Francisco 49ers gear.

"I love it here; it's beautiful," said Sonia Sanchez, 42, a San Jose tamale vendor who came with her father to celebrate her birthday. "It's the place to be."

"We already won $200," exclaimed Vicki Staggs, 55, a grocery store merchandiser from Rohnert Park, who played the "Solstice Celebration" slot machine with her friend Patricia Calderon.

Calderon, 49, an in-home caregiver from Rohnert Park, said she would be returning often.

The crowds gathered before light came, with the earliest arrivals showing up at about 4:30 a.m.

"I couldn't wait. I'm just too excited," said postal worker Bernetta Watts, 49, of Santa Rosa.

"It's good to have one here; all the other casinos are really far," said Juan Abarca, 70, of Santa Rosa as he waited for the east entrance, which faces Sonoma Mountain, to open.

"It's the talk of the town," said Kim Bolio, 44, of Cloverdale. She gambles at River Rock Casino once a week, she said, but may well switch her allegiance.

"It's basically, really the only place in Sonoma now that would be fun," said Pam Bagala, 55, of Santa Rosa, who went to River Rock Casino last Friday night and Las Vegas a month before.

Later in the morning, Jose Lujan of Pittsburg leaned on the marble bar of the Sky Lounge and waited to order an $8 glass of champagne for his wife, who was playing the slots.

"We stayed in a hotel last night in Santa Rosa, to avoid traffic and the lines," said Lujan, 49, a driver for a garbage disposal company.

"We like it better than Cache Creek and Thunder Valley so far, and it's closer," he said, referring to Sacramento-area casinos that the Graton casino expects to compete with.

Before lunchtime, the gambling hall's three open restaurants were full. (The fourth, a steakhouse, opened at dinnertime.) The nine-vendor, 500-seat food court was jammed.

By evening, the casino was attracting the after-work crowd, many of them eager to try the food.

Lloyd Rovai of Santa Rosa arrived at 4:30 p.m. and decided as soon as he walked into the casino that he would spend his money on food rather than gambling. He was among the first members of the public to eat at 630 Park Steakhouse, which Station Casinos argues will easily rank among the best steakhouses in California.

"I'd really rather spend $100 on a great dinner than pull a handle and walk away empty-handed," said Rovai, who ordered the bone-in, 28-day aged rib-eye steak. "It was off-the-chart amazing."

By 6:30 p.m., the wait for service at the steakhouse was between 90 minutes to two hours.

At the Daily Grill, the wait for dinner was about 30 minutes, and at Tony's of North Beach the wait was similar to that of the steakhouse.

George Karpaty, Tony's owner Tony Gemignani's business partner, said the first day of business was extremely busy. He said he expected business to remain strong.

"It's going to get stronger and stronger. The locals haven't come here yet," Karpaty said.

"It's a very big day for our family," said Maria Elena Reyes, the matriarch of La Fondita, a food court restaurant. The business started as a taco truck that grew into a Sebastopl Road restaurant and now has a foothold in a 24-hour-a-day entertainment venue expected to draw millions of visitors a year.

In the high-limit slots room, Graton Rancheria member Mike George, 65, walked around and enjoyed the sights.

"See that lady right there, she won $250," he said, as a slot machine chimed to signal a jackpot.

"For the tribe, this is going to help a lot of people out with housing and education," said George of Santa Rosa, a retired operating engineer.

But for some, their inaugural trip to the casino ended before it really began as word spread of long waits and long lines to get in the door, for a slot machine, a bathroom or food.

Mike Alvarez said it took him about 2? hours to get from his home in Vallejo to a parking space in Rohnert Park.

He then waited to get inside. But after an hour or so on the floor, he was back outside, looking for food and heading home.

"It's just not worth it," said Alvarez. "I'd rather go to Cache Creek."

Another Vallejo resident, Gail Williams, described her trip to the casino as remarkably bad.

"I got a ticket," she said.

Then, after fighting traffic, she had to park on the east side of Highway 101. She walked blocks to get to the casino, but with the building in view, gave up and turned around.

A man heading out of the casino crossed paths with Williams, telling her it wasn't worth it due to all the waiting and lines.

Phuong Vo and her grandparents also headed home before they got in.

Vo said it took an hour to get to Rohnert Park from San Francisco. Then it took an hour to get from Highway 101 to the casino a few blocks away.

Four casino patrons had been taken to area hospitals by mid-afternoon Tuesday after suffering medical emergencies, according to Sonoma County emergency fire dispatch reports.

Asked whether he expected the first-day crush to remain, Hasson, the general manager said: "There will always be some settling and normalization. This is first-day fabulousness."

Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie rode his bicycle over at about 10 a.m. to see it for himself.

"I don't think there's any question that it's going to have a dramatic impact on the economy of the city of Rohnert Park, he said. "It's a game-changer"

He added: "But clearly there's going to have to be some very painful adjustments to how people behave in traffic. But these are all the details that we'll work out after this initial rampage."

Staff Writers Jeremy Hay, Mary Callahan, Randi Rossmann and Martin Espinoza wrote this story. Matt Brown contributed to this story. Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.