Long battle has begun for Koi Nation’s casino project near Windsor
In the span of about eight months in late 2002 and early 2003, two Indigenous tribes announced plans to build casinos in Sonoma County.
The first was the Cloverdale Rancheria of Pomo Indians, who identified a parcel of land they owned on the southeast edge of town there. The second was the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who cast their gaze to a property near Sears Point.
Close to two decades later, the Graton Rancheria project thrives — not near Sears Point, but next to Rohnert Park, it turns out. It is one of the county’s largest businesses, with a full-time staff of nearly 2,000 people. Meanwhile, the Cloverdale Rancheria vision languishes. The tribe has land and official sovereignty, but no state gaming compact — and no casino.
With the Koi Nation, a distinct band of Pomo people, surprising practically everyone last week with announcement of their plan to build a massive casino and resort near Shiloh Regional Park between Windsor and Santa Rosa, some wonder where their fortunes are headed.
The big question: Will their project turn out more like Graton’s, or like Cloverdale’s?
The answer may not be determined for years.
‘We’d be fools not to know the situation’
“We’re aware of how the battle will be,” said Koi Nation Chairman Darin Beltran, as he stood beneath a line of oaks on the 68-acre property his tribe just bought for $12.3 million. “It’s important we don’t get excited. We’d be fools not to know the situation. We’re prepared.”
That battle, which has begun in earnest with vocal opposition from neighbors and at least one other local tribe, will happen within a formidable tangle of legislative, legal and financial issues, according to professor Kathryn Rand, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota.
“Whether you’re talking about a tribal or commercial casino, the development of a resort property is a big undertaking,” Rand said. “Big in terms of finance, but also compliance, because of how regulated the industry is. It’s no small thing to get done.”
The first challenge in front of the Koi Nation, and the one likely to remain most opaque for a while, is how to pay for a project that is expected to cost about $600 million, and calls for a 200-room hotel, six restaurant food service areas, a meeting center and spa, along with 2,500 slots and other gaming machines.
Suspicious residents of the Shiloh area and surrounding neighborhoods wonder how a tribe of just 90 enrolled members, many of them acknowledged to be of modest means, can afford that.
The Koi currently benefit from shared revenue via California tribes that have gambling centers, but they will have to bring in deep-pocketed financial partners. It’s a point of contention for the No Windsor Casino group, which formed in the past few days to combat the project in Shiloh.
“It’s Vegas money,” surmised Chris Lamela, who lives about 300 feet from the unincorporated Koi property and has emerged as the group’s spokesman.
The idea of out-of-area backers with roots in high-level gambling operations may bother some locals, but it’s unlikely to emerge as an important legal point, Rand said.
“Every casino project has investors,” she noted.
Rand said it isn’t realistic to expect any American Indian tribe to pay for major developments, considering their modern history. Most were displaced to federal lands, where they were unable to collect property taxes.
“Where I am, in the middle of the country, Indian gaming is what makes reservation communities viable,” Rand said. “I don’t mean to belittle at all how local residents feel about this project. But if you look at the bigger picture, the fact that this tribe has backers — well, it hasn’t had land since its land was taken in the 1950s. How else are they gonna do it? They can’t just have a bake sale.”
Still, the financing of a resort this size is no simple matter. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria found that out during their slog to get a casino built in Rohnert Park, when a national credit crisis threatened construction financing, and later when their primary investor, Nevada-based Station Casinos, declared bankruptcy.
The real challenges for Beltran and the other Koi tribal leaders, though, are likely to come in the regulatory sphere.