Graton Casino Marks First Year in Business

California’s largest Indian casino, the $800 million Graton Resort and Casino, just celebrated its first anniversary. Its effects on the surrounding area has been mixed.

It has been a year since the 0 million Graton Resort and Casino, possibly the largest Indian casino in California, opened near Rohnert Park, in the northern part of the state. Although the casino resort has had a profound effect on the finances of neighboring casinos, it doesn’t seem to have had a deleterious influence on the surrounding Sonoma County—contrary to predictions by gaming naysayers.

When the casino with 3,000 slots and 144 gaming tables opened on November 5 of last year it created a 22-mile traffic jam that caused thousands of people to leave their cars and continue to the casino on foot.

The new enterprise has created 2,000 jobs for local residents while paying local government about $13 million to cover impacts to public services, such as police and fire.

There has been some increase in crime brought about by the extra traffic, including auto theft, DUI arrests, fraud and vice arrests, but Rohnert Park Police Chief Brian Masterson says there is no way to prove that they are related to the casino.

The Sheriff’s Department answers about five more calls a day related to the casino and has assigned two teams of deputies assigned to the facility, visiting frequently and doing walk-throughs. Casino security handles most of the disturbances and obnoxious customers that are stock and trade for the industry.

The city of Rohnert Park, however, has seen arrests go up by 3 percent and is short-pressed to deal with increased activity, particularly because of budget cuts over the past few years that reduced the department from 80 officers to 59. The town has also seen car thefts jump from 57 in 2013 to 80 this year.  Drunken driving has risen 13.5 percent.

The California Highway Patrol has not had to deal with the same kind of traffic nightmares it experience the first week. “The pumpkin patch is causing more problems than the casino is,” said a spokesman for the CHP. He was referring to a local tourist destination where people can buy pumpkins.

Call volumes for the local fire department, which planned for up to 30 trips a day, have actually been about one trip a day.

At the same time it doesn’t seem to have adversely impacted existing businesses one way or the other.

According to Rohnert Park Mayor Joe Callinan, quoted by the Press Democrat, “One year later, Rohnert Park is still a wonderful place to raise a family, retire or run a business. “The casino hasn’t changed the character of the community one bit.”

City Manager Darrin Jenkins adds, “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. Teasing out what is casino-related is hard.”

Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, opines that most of those who patronize the casino don’t also sample the region’s wine tasting. So the region’s tourist traffic hasn’t been impacted much by the casino, he says. But the casino has also not hurt or helped retail growth in the area.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt also says that the problems foreseen by many about the casino never came to pass.

“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 told the Press Democrat, “It’s somewhere in between.”

Susan Moore, who headed a group that supported the casino: Friends of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, declares, “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.”

The casino resort brings the taste (include four fine dining venues) and atmosphere (with rock bands such as Styx appearing) of Las Vegas to Sonoma County, to the detriment of some of its local competitors, such as River Rock Casino, which operates in Geyserville, and has seen its revenues plummet by 50 percent since the advent of the Graton. This has caused the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo to default on payments to investors and to get $3.5 million in arrears to Sonoma County.

In the works is a 200-room hotel, although the exact timing of that addition has not been announced.

It’s difficult to gauge how much the casino is making for the tribe, since Indian tribes are not required to share their financial information with the public, however, Station Casinos, which operates the Graton for the tribe, and which is a publically held company, reported net revenues of $190 million for two quarters, without differentiating how much it got from Graton.

The groups that have steadfastly opposed the tribe’s efforts to build a casino for more than a decade continue to fight Graton in court. Stop Graton Casino is asking the California Supreme Court to review a case that they have so far lost at every level of the court system. They have challenged the tribe’s legal authority to offer gaming on the 254-acre Rohnert Park site, claiming that the land wasn’t ancestral land of the tribe and was instead land that their casino partner gave to them.

One the one-year anniversary of the casino’s opening the group released a statement that said, “We’ve already seen the intrusion of hard-core criminals, with the prostitution ring bust in April. 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.”

Since the state’s voters recently rejected a tribal state gaming compact because it was an example of an “off-reservation,” casino, the casino opponents hope that this “reservation shopping” approach will give them some traction with the state’s justices.

“Newly purchased lands are a world apart from historic reservations,” said the group in a statement announcing the petition. Lower courts have already rejected this line of reasoning.