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.