A year later, Graton casino’s impacts limited

They came by the thousands from across the Bay Area one year ago, some hoping to gamble, others merely to gawk at the spectacle of opening day at the Graton Resort and Casino, $800 million-worth of Las Vegas-style glitz just outside Rohnert Park.

The crowd clogged the freeway, creating an epic 22-mile traffic backup. Many abandoned their cars and set off on foot, cutting through fields and parking lots, converging on the 340,000-square-foot casino like zombies in a horror movie, as one law enforcement officer put it.

Opponents of the casino that was?10 years in the making said Sonoma County would forever change that day, Nov. 5, 2013, voicing fears that increased crime and traffic - among other fallout - would result from the gambling palace situated in the center of Wine Country.

A year later, though, the casino’s impacts on Sonoma County are for the most part limited, unobtrusive and subsurface, according to residents, public safety authorities and community officials.

Graton Rancheria officials saw the project as a way to lift tribal members out of poverty and carve them a brighter future while promising Sonoma County would benefit from thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in shared revenues. The tribe has delivered on some of those promises, providing jobs and benefits for 2,000 casino workers and paying Rohnert Park and the county a total of $13 million over the past year to offset impacts on public services, including law enforcement.

But the casino’s role in the county’s economy at this point appears to be isolated, experts say, without much impact, positive or negative, on other businesses.

Police records show the casino’s first year corresponded with an increase in several areas of crime in Rohnert Park, including car theft, fraud, DUI, narcotics and prostitution, with the increases ranging from significant to minimal, according to Rohnert Park authorities.

Whether the higher numbers can be tagged to the new casino isn’t clear, as some of those crimes also are going up around the state, said Rohnert Park Police Chief Brian Masterson. He and other city leaders contend the grim future painted by casino opponents has not come to pass.

“One year later, Rohnert Park is still a wonderful place to raise a family, retire or run a business,” said Joe Callinan, Rohnert Park’s mayor. “The casino hasn’t changed the character of the community one bit.”

Even before the doors opened last year, it was clear that the sprawling casino - the largest in the nine-county Bay Area and one of the largest in the state - was a business unlike any other in Sonoma County. Its energy feels more like Las Vegas than the county’s first tribal gambling center, River Rock Casino, which opened in Geyserville in 2002. Its four restaurants serve everything from filet mignon with Australian lobster tail to a prosciutto-wrapped Kobe beef burger with fig compote and gorgonzola. The 9,000-square-foot event center plays host to acts like the aging rock band Styx and traditional Mexican banda musicians.

At the center of it all are 3,000 slot machines and 144 blackjack, poker and baccarat tables, offering gambling action every minute of every day since last Nov. 5.

At some point, the tribe plans to build a 200-room hotel, an addition that would transform the property into a true resort.

Still, for many local residents the casino exists as a destination apart, a complex rising above the Santa Rosa Plain, in clear eyeshot west of Highway 101 but set off from the rest of the county, with its world-class wineries, restaurants, towering redwoods and scenic coast.

Opponents have sought to play on that contrast, saying the casino does not belong and in fact set up shop without proper authorization from the state.

“Indian gaming was supposed to remain on remote reservations, not spread to urban areas,” the Stop Graton Casino group said in a statement last week.

But supporters say that the casino has benefited its employees and made payments to local governments without causing the problems that opponents envisioned.

“Every employee has a platinum health benefit. That has made a huge difference to many people,” said Susan Moore, former president of the now-defunct Friends of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a group that supported the tribe’s efforts to build the casino. “All the problems that were foreseen, the crime and traffic, none of these have been realized. I don’t see any downside to the casino. It has caused an awful lot of good.”

It remains unclear how much the casino has affected the welfare of the 1,200-member tribe. Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, would not comment for this article and declined a request through a secretary to interview members of the tribe. In the past, he has said the tribe needs to pay off its nearly $1 billion debt before making payments to tribe members.

Station Casinos, the Las Vegas firm which has a seven-year agreement with the tribe to manage the casino, also declined to comment. The tribe has paid Station $20.4 million in management fees through the first three quarters of operations.

The casino appears to be meeting projections, based on public earnings records filed by Station Casinos.

Through two quarters, the casino reported $190 million in net revenue, according to Station Casinos. Indian casinos are not required to make their earnings public but Station Casinos, which has publicly held debt, must file with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In Station’s report on its third-quarter earnings, released last week, the company did not disclose revenue from the Graton Casino. Station did not respond to a request for an explanation as to why it excluded Graton revenues from its third-quarter report. An investor conference call to talk about Graton’s third-quarter earnings was not open to the public.

Daily business is not what it was that cloudless Tuesday morning last year, when nearly every parking place in the casino’s 5,700-car lot was full and casino managers had to temporarily close the doors on long lines of gamblers waiting outside.

At 11 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, fewer than one-fourth of the parking spaces were occupied. Inside, a few dozen patrons were hunched over slot machines or sidled up to card tables. Some smoked cigarettes and ordered drinks from cocktail waitresses. Others recharged with caffeine from the Starbucks that is open 24 hours a day.

Analysts say it is hard to determine how much of an impact the casino has had on Sonoma County’s economy.

Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said that businesses in southern Sonoma County have not experienced a noticeable boost from the casino. He said tourists who come to the region to gamble spend most of their time and money at the casino.

“These are single-purpose tourists,” he said. “I don’t think these people are going wine tasting.”

There have been no adverse impacts on the businesses in the county, Stone said, but the casino is not adding to any retail growth in the county, he added.

So far, the tribe has made its quarterly payments to Rohnert Park and the county, a condition of the agreement with the state that authorized gambling on the 254-acre site. The guaranteed payments, used to offset the impacts of the casino, amount to about $8 million per year for Rohnert Park and $5 million for the county.

The county has distributed much of its share to fire districts that cover the casino’s property. It is also spending the money on the Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies and to monitor groundwater around the casino.

Rohnert Park has used its portion of the gambling proceeds to hire two public safety officers and a senior analyst, reseal its main expressway, purchase a police motorcycle and other equipment, and clear litter and weeds from the city’s entrance.

In the past year, the city’s jobless rate is down and sales and hotel tax revenue is up, but that could be just a product of regional economic growth, said Rohnert Park City Manager Darrin Jenkins.

“The local economy and employment have improved over the past year, but it’s tough to say if that’s casino-related or if it’s related to the economy improving as a whole,” he said. “Teasing out what is casino-related is hard.”

In the months leading up to Graton’s opening, the city passed moratoriums on businesses that some feared would proliferate in the shadow of the casino, including massage parlors, marijuana dispensaries and pawn shops.

City officials said those actions have paid off.

“Quite a lot of effort went into trying to mitigate the impacts of the casino,” Jenkins said. “It has been pretty quiet.”

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the county has not seen the kind of major problems coming from the casino that critics predicted, but he added that it has not been a boon to the local economy.

“At the end of the day, the casino has not been the Armageddon that people feared, and it’s not the cash cow that some promised,” he said. “It’s somewhere in between.”

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has logged about five incidents a day at the casino, including many initiated by deputies patrolling the area, Lt. Steve Brown said.

The Sheriff’s Office has two teams of three deputies assigned to the casino, patrolling the parking lots and surrounding areas, walking through the casino and handling any calls for service. The deputies are busy, but they have not observed the kind of violent, alcohol-fueled incidents the Sheriff’s Office anticipated before the establishment opened, Brown said.

“We are not seeing the fights and other violent crime reports that we were expecting,” Brown said.

Casino security appear to have been successful at handling rowdy patrons and mitigating disturbances before they reach the level of criminal behavior, Brown said.

But Rohnert Park police say that crime has risen in the city, located less than one-third of a mile away. Citywide, requests for police service have increased by about 600 calls, up 1 percent, in the casino’s first year, though it is difficult to tie the increase directly to the casino.

Cmdr. Jeff Taylor said the casino is like any other major business that’s new to town.

“When Wal-Mart went in, numbers went up … on all kinds of issues,” Taylor said. “When Costco came, there were more calls for service. When the casino came, there were more calls for service.”

Getting a true picture of the casino’s impact could take three to five years, Taylor said, based on input from law enforcement in other casino cities.

Rohnert Park’s police officers say the statistics don’t reflect what they are seeing on the street. The department is pressed by the influx of people, resulting in more criminal activity, and has too few officers, said Sgt. Jeff Nicks, president of the city’s police union.

Arrests in town in the casino’s first year went up 3 percent over the prior year, according to city statistics.

“There are a lot more people we should be arresting but we can’t because we’re short-handed,” said Dave Rodriguez, a?12-year Rohnert Park officer.

After deep budget cuts, the department has gone from 80 officers prior to 2010 to 59 currently, Taylor said. The casino money allowed the department to add two officers, beefing up a traffic enforcement team. Efforts are underway to fill five openings in the department as well, said Taylor.

The casino draws hundreds of visitors daily from all over the Bay Area. While only a small portion of the visitors cause trouble, Rodriguez said the crowds still translate to more issues such as drugs, theft and drunken driving. The veteran officer said he’s also seeing a more aggressive type of person in many of his daily contacts.

“I’ve never been assaulted more than I have in the last year,” Rodriguez said.

Car theft appears to show the biggest jump this year.

In Rohnert Park, 80 vehicles disappeared throughout town in the past year, compared to 57 in the prior year - an increase of 40 percent. Thieves have stolen 15 cars and trucks from the casino’s parking lot and five-story garage since the opening, said CHP Officer Jon Sloat, who called the amount significant.

Drunken driving arrests are up 13.5 percent in the casino’s first year compared to the prior year, according to Rohnert Park crime statistics. Fraud, including identity theft, is up 15 percent and narcotics arrests are up 22 percent, said Masterson, the Rohnert Park police chief.

At least three people were arrested this year at hotels in Rohnert Park for making fake credit cards with stolen card numbers and using them at the casino.

Masterson said he is asked most often about prostitution in the city with the casino now operating on its western border. Rohnert Park had two prostitution arrests in 2012 and 12 in the first year of casino operations.

Five of the prostitution arrests this year came in April, when about 100 law enforcement officers from 23 agencies, including a dozen FBI personnel, participated in a series of stings at motels in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Rohnert Park, targeting suspected prostitutes, pimps and their would-be clientele. Without citing specific data to prove a link between the casino and a rise in activity, local authorities said they and their counterparts in the rest of the Bay Area, as well as members of the FBI, have seen increasing references in online advertising suggesting prostitutes are coming to the area to take advantage of heavy casino traffic.

“We’ve always had prostitution,” Masterson said. “There’s more now because of the casino, I definitely think.”

Since the opening day traffic nightmare, congestion has not been an issue, according to the CHP.

“The pumpkin patch is causing more problems than the casino is,” Sloat said, referring to the popular Petaluma destination off Highway 101.

Before the opening, firefighters and paramedics planned on making up to 30 trips a day to the casino. Rincon Valley firefighters, whose response area includes the casino, handled 17 calls on opening day, but have averaged less than one trip per day since, said Central Fire Chief Doug Williams.

“The call volume never reached any of the ominous numbers some were afraid might occur,” he said. “I think it was probably wise to err on the preparation for a more severe case and find we were able to scale back, as opposed to scrambling.”

An anti-gambling group that sued to block the development has continued to oppose the casino despite recently losing a legal appeal seeking to invalidate the Graton tribe’s authority to offer gaming on its land. Last week, the group asked the state Supreme Court to consider the case. Chip Worthington, the Rohnert Park pastor who leads the Stop Graton Casino group, declined to comment for this article, but his organization released a statement on the casino’s impacts after one year.

“We’ve already seen the intrusion of hard-core criminals, with the prostitution ring bust in April,” the group said. “Organized crime in Rohnert Park, drawn here by the casino, is as we predicted. Because of the well-known negative impacts of casinos, voters were promised by Proposition 1A (the 2000 ballot initiative) that Indian gaming would be on long-standing reservations, not in our cities. Reservation shopping in cities and towns is a breach of faith with the voters.”

Leading up to opening day, residents of Wilfred Avenue in western Rohnert Park, the casino’s closest neighbors, worried that the gambling complex in their backyard would cause traffic delays and crime in their rural neighborhood. They also feared casino’s deep well would deplete the water table, leaving their own wells dry. A year later, some neighbors no longer have those concerns.

“There have been no problems,” Maria Escoto, a Wilfred Avenue resident, said. “Traffic has been so-so. There are no accidents. No impacts that I’ve seen.”

Residents said the Graton tribe held community meetings and assured neighbors that they would deepen their wells if the casino caused them to go dry. Jerry Greiner, who lives with his brother one block from the casino, said he has seen little impact from the casino. The next phase of the casino’s development, a planned 200-room hotel, could have a greater impact on groundwater, he said.

“Once they build a hotel, it’s really going to affect the water,” he said.

If neighboring residents have experienced little impact, the Graton Resort and Casino has had a much larger impact on neighboring casinos. River Rock has seen its revenue drop by 50 percent, said Harvey Hopkins, chairman of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo, which owns the Geyserville casino. He declined to comment for this story but has acknowledged that declining revenue due to the Graton casino caused the tribe to default on payments to investors and miss a $3.5 million payment to Sonoma County.

The Graton casino has had a direct impact on its 2,000 employees, providing wages and benefits that workers say are above average. In July, about 600 casino employees, mostly maintenance and service workers, voted to join Unite Here, a union that represents 100,000 workers at gambling sites in the U.S. and Canada. The right to unionize was a provision that Sarris has said he pushed Station Casinos to accept when the tribe partnered with the Las Vegas company as the casino’s manager.

The union is starting to negotiate a contract with the tribe, and workers say they are happy with the benefits they have.

“The tribe has been really good to us. The benefits are great,” said Kathy Winfield, an internal maintenance worker and union representative.

Winfield said starting janitors make $12.50 per hour and earn nearly $15 per hour after one year. All employees receive 100 percent employer-paid health insurance that covers medical, dental and vision, said Elena Sanchez, who works in the employee dining room serving a free meal to each employee per shift. Employees pay $20 per month to add a dependent to the plan.

“A lot of people didn’t have health care before and now they are able to take care of medical issues,” she said. “People enjoy going to work. You see smiles on people’s faces because they are happy to be there and have a good job.”

Winfield said she sees Sarris and other tribal leaders nearly every night walking the casino floor and talking to employees about any problems they have.

“They want to see what’s happening,” she said. “If we have any concerns, we can go to them. I think that’s refreshing.”

Staff Writer Julie Johnson? contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or and Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or

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