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California tribal casinos

2014 total revenue: $7.3 billion

2007 total revenue (record high): $7.8 billion

Number of Indian casinos: 72

Number of California tribes with casinos: 63

California’s share of Indian gaming nationwide: 25 percent of $28.9 billion in revenue across 28 states

SOURCE: Casino City 2014 report


California tribal casinos continue on a roll, with a fourth straight year of gains, although a report released this week shows they have yet to reach their record revenue level prior to the recession, suggesting a still-challenging economy for a dozen smaller casinos on the North Coast.

The state’s 72 tribal casinos raked in $7.3 billion in 2014, up 4 percent over 2013, according to a report by Casino City, a clearinghouse for publications on the gambling industry.

The Graton Resort & Casino, which opened just over two years ago next to Rohnert Park as one of the biggest casinos in the state, appears to be especially well positioned to take advantage of the growing gambling market.

As one of the top five largest casinos in the state, it has bucked the trend for “smaller- to medium-sized properties that have opened (in greater numbers) nationwide,” said Alan Meister, the author of the Indian Gaming Industry Report and an economist with Nathan Associates Inc.

“Graton represents one of the bigger ones in recent years,” he said, adding that it is in a “pretty good market.”

The casino, owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and operated by Station Casinos of Las Vegas, does not disclose revenues, and the Casino City report did not provide a breakdown of revenue by tribe or casino. But Graton Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris on Tuesday said “things are going very, very well and we’re very happy.”

In a recent letter to a state legislator, he described Graton as “one of California’s largest and most successful casinos.”

The $800 million facility, which opened in November 2013, is adding a $175 million, 200-room hotel and 2,000-seat convention center, currently under construction and expected to open in the fall.

In addition to rooms starting at 500 square feet, there will be high-roller suites of approximately 2,700 square feet.

“We’ll see how we do,” Sarris said, adding that depending on an environmental review, the resort could add 100 more rooms.

Currently the weekends “are very good,” he said, with the 5,000-space parking lot becoming tight on Saturday and even Sunday nights. “We are always busy,” he said, even during the week.

He touted the 1,500 jobs with medical and other benefits that casino workers enjoy, with plans to create another 300 positions.

The casino also makes $8 million in annual payments to Rohnert Park, most of which goes to cover police services, according to City Manager Darrin Jenkins.

Sonoma County gets $5.4 million annually from Graton, largely to offset casino impacts, according to administrative analyst Sita Kuteira.

While Graton is growing, officials at the 14-year-old River Rock tribal casino near Geyserville said their revenues were cut in half after the bigger, more modern and centrally located casino opened in Rohnert Park.

An attorney for the Alexander Valley-based tribe that owns the casino, the Dry Creek Rancheria of Pomo Indians, said last year that the Graton casino off Highway 101 “intercepts traffic” between River Rock and the Bay Area.

River Rock in 2014 defaulted on more than $150 million in bond indebtedness and missed two separate $3.5 million payments to the county that were to cover casino impacts. The annual payment to the county was renegotiated to $750,000, and the tribe made a one-time lump payment to the county of $4.2 million in November.

California tribal casinos

2014 total revenue: $7.3 billion

2007 total revenue (record high): $7.8 billion

Number of Indian casinos: 72

Number of California tribes with casinos: 63

California’s share of Indian gaming nationwide: 25 percent of $28.9 billion in revenue across 28 states

SOURCE: Casino City 2014 report

Dry Creek Tribal Chairman Chris Wright did not return phone messages this week requesting comment on the financial status of River Rock.

Meister, the author of the gambling report, said new facilities and expansions can come at the expense of existing casinos and that appears to be the case for River Rock, based on published reports.

Competition, he said, can result in “cannibalization.”

“It’s a question when new facilities are proposed. It has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Doug Elmets, who represents five tribes, including those that operate Thunder Valley and Jackson Rancheria casinos closer to Sacramento, said the new Casino City report showing an overall growth in tribal gambling revenue reflects an improving California economy.

But “the smaller casinos are continuing to try and find their niche, given the large successful casinos are offering so many additional amenities to try and attract a broader customer base,” he said Wednesday.

When a competitor like Graton enters the marketplace, “everyone has to up their game, despite a better economy,” he said.

His presumption is that Graton has had an impact on smaller outlying casinos beyond River Rock, which include seven tribal casinos in Mendocino County and four in Lake County.

“They need to continue to figure out a way to appeal to those who are locals, those who don’t want to necessarily drive to Graton, but feel more comfortable in a casino in their own backyard,” Elmets said.

That includes adding local entertainment, appealing to the community to support a local business and devising targeted marketing plans “that differentiate you from your competition,” he said.

Casinos, in general, have an enviable business model, Elmets said, because “people come in and give you money all day long.”

“When people have more discretionary income they look for ways to spend it,” he said, including going to a casino.

He said Thunder Valley, which has 2,500 slot machines and 127 table games, is “doing fantastic.” It’s adding 111 hotel rooms to the existing 297 rooms in its 17-story tower next to the casino.

Graton, a 340,000-square-foot facility with approximately 3,000 slots and 150 table games, is in the same big league, along with several other Southern California tribal casinos that have roughly the same or even more slots — San Manuel, Pechanga and Viejas.

The Casino City report said tribal gambling now represents 43.5 percent of the nationwide casino gambling market, just below the commercial sector at 44.2 percent. Racinos, or racetrack casinos, which are not allowed in California, make up the rest.

California continues to hold the largest share of nationwide tribal gambling, or approximately 25 percent of the $28.9 billion in revenue across 28 states in 2014.

While that was a record for tribal gambling nationwide, California’s 63 tribes with casinos have not yet reached the record $7.8 billion casinos they collected in 2007.

The California Gambling Control Commission collects data from tribes on their casino revenues, in order to disburse a portion to non-gambling tribes and other special funds, but pursuant to the gambling compacts it is confidential information, spokesman Eric Petosky said.

Meister’s report provides a glimpse into the somewhat veiled world of tribal gambling, drawing on a combination of public data, confidential information and estimates.

Casino City said Indian gambling’s total contribution to the U.S. economy in 2014, including all secondary impacts, was approximately $95 billion in output, or value of sales. It generated 738,000 jobs and $32.6 billion in wages.

Meister said his report does not delve into the social impacts of casinos, including problem gambling.

“I know casinos try to be very responsible to the consumers and those that could have problems,” he asserted. “It’s a small percentage of the population.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.