Cloverdale Rancheria affirms plans for casino on new homeland, but size and timeline unclear

A new casino would likely be more modest than the Graton Resort and Casino next to Rohnert Park, the Cloverdale tribe’s administrator said.|

A Cloverdale tribe granted federal clearance to build a casino on its homeland is moving forward with a gaming project but may downsize its plans to account for Sonoma County’s two existing tribal casinos, including the large gaming resort still taking shape outside Rohnert Park, a top official with the Cloverdale Rancheria said this week.

A casino on the rancheria’s newly designated sovereign land on the southeastern end of Cloverdale would likely be more modest than the Graton Resort and Casino next to Rohnert Park, Cloverdale Rancheria Tribal Administrator Vicky Macias said.

Contractors last month reached the halfway point on development of a 200-room?hotel adjacent to the 340,000-square-foot, 3,000-slot machine Graton casino, one of the five biggest in the state. The Cloverdale’s tribe’s original 2008 plans envisioned a project of similar scale.

“For us to come in and build something that big, we don’t know if economically it’s in the best interests of the tribe financially,” Macias said in an interview. “I think at this time, it’s off the table.”

She said the last thing the tribe wants to do is “overbuild and never fill” its casino.

The size of the casino, she added, will depend on market studies. “Until we do our homework, we don’t know the full description of what the project will be,” Macias said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs last week granted the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians permission to create a sovereign homeland on 62 acres outside Cloverdale, the county’s northernmost city. Approval of the request, eight years in the making, represented the largest initial hurdle to the tribe’s plans for a ?casino-hotel complex.

The original plans called for a 575,600-square-foot complex consisting of a casino with 2,000 slots, 244-room hotel, 984-seat convention center, 1,300-seat entertainment hall and 3,500 parking spaces.

The tribe still must obtain a gaming compact for a casino from Gov. Jerry Brown, but has not yet begun negotiations, according to Macias. The compact also must be ratified by the Legislature.

Another potential hurdle could come if Sonoma County supervisors decide to challenge the action by the BIA to place the land into federal trust on behalf of the tribe, which makes the property no longer subject to state and local authority.

The supervisors will meet Tuesday, in a second consecutive closed session on the topic, to consider whether to try to stop the casino by filing a lawsuit challenging the federal decision.

Supervisor James Gore, who represents the area and who opposes a casino in Cloverdale, said the county is still weighing its chances of prevailing. He acknowledged it could be a long shot.

“Case law doesn’t bode well for being able to stop this from going forward,” Gore said Friday.

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said even if the county files a lawsuit, there are new rules where “the land goes into trust and can be developed while the litigation is pending.”

Both county and city officials this week expressed a willingness to negotiate an agreement with the tribe to offset the casino impacts. Such deals could include tribal payments for providing police and fire services and potentially extending city water and sewer utilities to the casino development.

Cloverdale’s stance, said City Manager Paul Cayler, “is when you know the right size of your project let us know. We are happy to talk to you and see if your project is something we can support.’

Market forces may play the biggest role ultimately in shaping the Cloverdale project.

The gambling picture has changed in Sonoma County since the tribe officially applied to build its project in 2008.

In late 2013, the opening of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s casino outside Rohnert Park had an immediate impact on River Rock, the county’s first and oldest tribal casino, operated since 2002 near Geyserville by the Dry Creek Rancheria of Pomo Indians.

River Rock officials reported their revenues were cut approximately in half and complained that the newer and ritzier casino closer to the Bay Area was snagging customers who previously drove farther north to their smaller gambling hall.

Graton’s impact also prompted predictions from experts that the Cloverdale tribe could have difficulty financing a major casino resort, since most patrons would have to drive to the northern end of Sonoma County, bypassing the Graton complex 35 miles to the south and River Rock Casino in Alexander Valley.

But smaller Indian casinos to the north - seven exist in Mendocino County and four in Lake County - have survived.

The Cloverdale tribe’s application to the U.S. Department of the Interior to have its acreage next to Highway 101 taken into federal trust also listed several alternative development projects, including one with a casino but no hotel, convention center or entertainment center. Another option called for industrial, office and retail space and no gaming facilities.

Macias, the tribal administrator, said Thursday the tribe is committed to building a casino of some sort, but declined to predict its size. She said it’s possible the tribe could drop the hotel, depending on approval and timing of the proposed nearby Alexander Valley Resort and its destination hotel.

Macias said the Cloverdale Pomos are still “working closely” with Sealaska, a Juneau-based Native American corporation that purchased the land on Cloverdale’s southeastern edge and agreed to finance and manage the casino project.

Sealaska more than a decade ago partnered with a San Diego tribe to build and manage the 1,750-slot Valley View Casino, about 12 miles outside Escondido in San Diego County.

Sonoma County and Cloverdale officials in the past expressed staunch opposition to the proposed casino, raising concerns about traffic, a possible increase in crime and a loss of industrially zoned land where the casino would be built.

They were especially dismayed by the lack of any advance notice when the Interior Department issued its intended decision April 29 to put the land into trust. The federal government, in a pointed letter to the tribe, said it was rectifying a historic injustice when it terminated the tribe’s 28-acre rancheria in 1965. The tribe was restored a couple of decades later, but remained landless.

The notification from the Department of the Interior surprised the 563-member tribe as much as it did Sonoma County and Cloverdale officials.

The decision came “out the blue,” after awaiting a ruling for so long, Macias said. She was elated that the tribe finally has a restored land base that will allow it to achieve “long-term, stable economic development.”

“For us, it’s a new beginning. I can’t tell you how excited we are,” she said, explaining that it will enable the tribe to help provide housing, medical care and other services to its members, a quarter of whom are either in poverty or low income.

But city and county officials complained they should have been kept better apprised by the federal government.

Supervisor Gore said the BIA never addressed or responded to some of the issues the county raised, including potential environmental impacts of the tribal project.

But he said he respects the right of the tribe to apply for land that will help it achieve self determination.

“We want to negotiate with the tribe, no matter what,” he said.

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

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