Thousands swarm Graton casino on opening day
Seventy-year-old Mary Lopez left her Fremont home just after 3 a.m. to line up in the cold air outside the Graton Resort & Casino, ignoring whatever controversy remains about the behemoth operation and instead focusing on dreams of slot machine riches.
“I know the system,” said Lopez, who laughed at the absurdity of coming out ahead before she offered a dose of gambler’s optimism.
“We’ve got to make our money today,” Lopez said. “They give it away at first to keep the people coming, but then they tighten up the machines down the road.”
On Tuesday, Lopez was among thousands from the Bay Area who arrived by car, bus, wheelchair and walker to place the first bets at the casino near Rohnert Park, the newest, largest, brightest – and now the closest – Las Vegas-style gambling hall to San Francisco.
Marketers of the 254-acre, $800 million, 13-restaurant, 144-table, 3,000-slot-machine betting palace have billed it as “43 minutes from Bay to play.”
Plush with streaming waterfalls, modern decor and the first skylight in an American casino that shines natural light onto many of the 78 blackjack tables, the Graton facility has industry analysts praising it as a “game-changer.”
But it has been controversial with locals, many of whom fear blocks of deadlocked traffic along the notoriously sluggish Highway 101, the nerve center of Sonoma County travel.
After a decade of court battles, with more lawsuits promised, some Sonoma County folks fear their tranquil Wine Country sensibilities have been cashed in for those of the brash Las Vegas Strip.
A group called Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, which lost an August court ruling to halt the opening, worry that it’s only a matter of time before the glitzy facade fades and the signs of gambling addiction – check-cashing outlets, pawnshops and smash-and-grab robberies – escalate in Rohnert Park and along the 101 corridor.
“You can’t have gambling without gambling problems,” said Chelsea Thatcher, 48, a Santa Rosa resident who had opposed the casino but decided to walk through the new digs with a skeptical eye on opening day. “There’s not a lot we can do now, though. We’ll just have to see if they’re going to keep up their end of the bargain.”
The bargain, as viewed by Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the 1,300-member Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, is a boon for both his tribe and Sonoma County residents.
The tribe has already donated $2.7 million to Rohnert Park’s public safety department to help fund a gang task force and $1 million toward gambling addiction and prevention services, and it promises an additional $12 million annually to both the city and county if the casino hits revenue expectations.
But that money makes its way into public coffers only if the casino stays filled with everyone from penny-slot players to big-bet sharks.
Sarris, sitting in the sun-filled Sky bar moments before the doors swung open Tuesday, noted the casino had created 2,000 jobs, making it the county’s largest employer.
“I am filled with gratitude this day has arrived,” said Sarris, who also teaches college English. “Now I feel more overwhelmed with the responsibility of making good on my word for this community.”
Sarris pointed across the floor to a wall of glass doors, where bar visitors had a clear view of mountains.
“We designed every square inch to appeal to the people of Northern California,” he said. “I knew no one in the Bay Area would want to come unless we made it a destination for the foodies and the Wine Country crowd.”
To that end, Sarris leased one spot to celebrity chef Martin Yan, who opened the high-end M.Y. China, and another to 630 Park, a posh steak house that features Sonoma and Napa wines. Also on board are Tony Gemignani’s Slice House, an offshoot of the famed San Francisco pizzeria, and La Fondita, a local Mexican restaurant that launched from a Roseland taco truck that Sarris frequented.
“I hope they become very wealthy overnight,” Sarris said of the family that owns La Fondita. “They deserve it.”
The tribe also has approval to build a 250-room hotel and spa, but Sarris has not said when construction will begin.
Victor Rocha, a Southern California writer and analyst who has followed Indian gaming for 15 years, called Sarris’ vision for the Graton “can’t-miss.”
The Graton, Rocha said, reflects a new ideal for Indian casinos – an attempt to get away from the “slots-in-a-box” minimalism that would offend Northern California tastes.
“This is what you build when you’re going to be here a long, long time,” Rocha said. “Greg is building for the market he’s in, because it’s not a case of ‘if you build it, they will come’ anymore. The market has options. They have to want to go to your casino now.”
Indeed, billboards for competing casinos farther north on 101 have already popped up, offering free gambling rewards and hoping to lure San Francisco drivers far past Graton.
And there was plenty of time for roadside reading Tuesday morning as traffic inched through the area, despite flashing road signs offering detours to gamblers. At one point the casino was so full that the staff locked the doors and blocked people from coming in until others left.
Despite the opening-day crush, Sarris said he believes there’s little reason for his fellow Indian casino owners to worry about the new competition.
“There’s plenty of room for all of us to survive,” Sarris said. “Customers will choose their favorite spot to gamble. Some will like what they offer at River Rock, and some will prefer what we offer.”
On the gaming floor, Gloria Yueng, 63, of Novato was among the winning customers to delight in the shiny, new $1 slot machines, and she was ready to declare her loyalty to Graton after an $11 victory.
“Cache Creek is dead to me now,” Yueng said, laughing. “You can’t win there anymore. You play and you play and play, but you can’t win. Here, I’m already ahead.”
Despite the short-term wins for players, tensions from the casino’s opponents remain.
Bo Links, an attorney for Stop the Casino 101, said his group was filing an appeal that he hoped would shut down the operation.
In August, a Sonoma County judge ruled against the group’s claim that the state of California had failed to formally cede the land that makes up the tribe’s reservation, and that the federal government failed to formally accept the title transfer.
The case is a longshot to get overturned, but Links said an appeal judge could make a ruling early next year – and, if so, it could halt plans for future casinos in California.
“We’re confident we’re on the right side of the law here,” Links said. “This is about whether we’re going to carve up the state to give land away.”
After the doors opened about 9 a.m. and swarms of gamblers ran to baccarat and pai gow poker tables, Sarris took a deep breath and said it would be a long time before his tribe members saw profits from the venture.
The tribe has racked up $1 billion in debt. But he was confident his gamble on a new kind of casino would pay off.
“This will be the first time since colonization we will be able to control our own fate,” Sarris said, “our economic fate, and the environment around us.”