The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, which has seen a drastic decline in revenues from its River Rock Casino since a bigger, newer competitor opened near Rohnert Park, has chosen a new leader.
Harvey Hopkins, chairman of the Dry Creek tribe for the past 10 years, lost his bid for re-election over the weekend, coming in last to two other challengers.
The new chairman of the tribe is Chris Wright, 43, who is also the head of marketing for River Rock Casino near Geyserville. Preliminary results shared Monday by two tribal members had Wright earning 41 percent of the vote to 35 percent for Salvina Norris, the vice chairwoman, and 24 percent for Hopkins.
Saturday’s election came at a pivotal time for the 1,200-member tribe, which has seen its casino revenues cut in half since the Graton Resort and Casino opened a year ago about 30 miles south.
After its casino revenues plummeted, Dry Creek defaulted on more than $140 million owed to River Rock bondholders and also remains delinquent on a $3.5 million annual payment to Sonoma County to offset impacts from the gambling hall on a hill overlooking scenic Alexander Valley.
Tribal members said Wright is a fresh face, smart and personable.
“Those that voted for him probably think he (has) younger ideas, maybe more marketing ideas to keep our casino going,” said tribal elder Reg Elgin, who supported Hopkins.
Elgin said Hopkins, 66, may have unfairly been blamed for River Rock’s troubles since Graton opened. But he added that “the voters were pretty adamant in their stand — they thought it was time for a change.”
Wright echoed those comments in assessing his win Monday.
“I think some people just wanted a different direction,” he said in a brief comment over the phone. He could not be reached for an interview with additional questions Monday.
In his candidate statement, Wright stressed his depth of experience in casino marketing and business plans as well as the need for training for tribal members to move up in the casino, tribal office or any other business ventures.
He also may have benefited from belonging to one of the tribe’s larger families and an ability to marshal votes in the election, which reportedly drew around 330 voters, roughly half the tribe’s approximate 650 eligible adult voting members.
“Like anything else, who has the biggest family usually has the winner,” said Bob McKay, 71, a retired transportation planner and tribal member who traveled from his home in Yakima, Wash., to vote for Hopkins. But he also acknowledged “10 years of one person is a long time,” especially for younger tribal members attracted to new leadership.
Hopkins was credited with launching a new era of cooperation and communication with local officials when he was first elected in 2004, culminating with a $100 million revenue-sharing agreement the tribe struck with the county to offset casino expansion impacts. The amount was later reduced after Dry Creek’s plans to expand River Rock and build a hotel resort were put on hold.
Under Hopkins’ leadership, the tribe took steps to restructure and reduce old bond debt and create new revenue, buying vineyards and creating a wine-bottling venture and a new tobacco shop at the casino.
But Hopkins also was accused by critics of being “dictatorial” going ahead with some expensive ventures like buying land adjacent to the tribe’s historic 75-acre rancheria at inflated costs, or establishing a round-the-clock tribal fire department as opposed to continuing to rely on the Geyserville Fire Protection District for emergency response.