New Game in Town: Record Crowds Swarm Graton Resort & Casino Opening
“I’m so excited!” shouted Eileen Braden of Napa, fast-walking from the parking lot to the entrance of the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, California. “This is so close to home, now I don’t have to go to Tahoe or Reno anymore.”
Like Braden, they came from all over Northern California—and one source tells us some even flew in from Asia. Skilled gamblers, amateur fortune seekers and just regular folks hoping to get lucky at the new $800 million casino they had heard so much about after nearly a year and a half of construction.
After all, everyone knows that slots are looser on opening day, right?
The only problem is, they couldn’t all get in – not even Braden. Within 40 minutes of the doors opening to the talk of the town on Nov. 5th, the 340,000-square-foot casino was “over capacity” and the only way past the overwhelmed staffers-turned-bouncers at the locked doors was if somebody—anybody—came out.
“I heard we broke all major casino records as far as openings and intake,” said Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the 1,300-member Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria who won federal recognition for his tribe in 2000. The Highway Patrol in Rohnert Park estimated the turnout at more than 10,000, with a 24-mile back-up on Highway 101.
Record crowds are good news for Graton tribal members, who, Sarris said, will start receiving per capita payments after the first quarter. “But they are not going to be significant,” he said. “We have nearly a billion-dollar debt to pay off.”
Isn’t that all the more reason to appease the disappointed, shut-out crowd on opening day? The only thing hotter than the 20-spots burning holes in their wallets were tempers flaring outside the doors.
“This is a very bad casino!” screamed a San Jose woman who had driven nearly 100 miles. “I have been waiting more than one hour! ONE HOUR!”
Louisa Kien, a registered nurse from Pacifica, shared a bit more insight: “I don’t think it’s good to come on opening day.”
A teacher from San Francisco, who asked to remain anonymous because she was playing hooky from school, said, “I’m disappointed because they had a crowd larger than expected and they are not prepared. At the very least, they could be passing out bottles of water.” A little spooked by the restless crowd, she kept a respectable distance. “People are charging the doors when they open them, and at some point, someone is going to get hurt.”
A patient few didn’t mind the long lines to get in. One woman compared it to waiting for a ride at Disneyland.
Inside the casino, once you looked past the serpentine lines of people waiting for bathrooms, food, alcohol and their reward cards, it could be the Happiest Place on Earth – for adults – with 3,000 slot machines, 144 table games, an 18-table poker room, three fully-stocked bars and 13 restaurants. Visually, the designers hit the jackpot. The casino literally glitters from 361 chandeliers and decorative accents in glass, marble, mother-of-pearl and stainless steel.
Graton is surely dressed to impress, hoping to capture a piece of an already dense gaming market of more than 60 native-owned casinos in California. Sarris is particularly interested in wooing the Bay Area and wine country crowds with award-winning chefs and top local wines.
“There is plenty, plenty of money to go around,” said Sarris when asked about elbowing aside the competition. The Press Democrat reports that the casino will generate about $533 million within two years – about one-third of a Northern California market shared by 20 casinos.
Surrounding communities are poised to benefit from gaming profits, too. According to the Los Angeles Times, the tribe will pay about $9 million a year to Sonoma County for 20 years, and $251 million to Rohnert Park over 20 years for public safety, education and other services.
But the tribal chairman insists it’s not about getting a new color TV. “Our job as Indian people in this tribe is not to repeat the paradigm of greed in business that has put the world in the condition that it is in today, but to use this opportunity to build a home, a safe home for all of us, once again.”
Sarris has ensured that every one of his 2,000 employees, including part-timers, receive full medical, dental and retirement benefits. “We will be the largest employer in Sonoma County with a $60 million a year payroll,” he said.
A 300-room “elegant” hotel and spa with a sun atrium are also in the works, Sarris shared. But what he is most proud of is a project that will give back – an organic farm that will be built on some remaining acres next to the casino. “We will employ undocumented folks and low-risk prisoners and pay them living wages, then sell the vegetables at cost to low-income families so they can enjoy the kinds of vegetables that rich folks get to eat from Whole Foods.”
However, not everyone is onboard with the new casino. The tribe has faced strong opposition over the years from Stop the Casino 101 Coalition, which believes the “Las Vegas-style operation” will bring an unsavory element of crime and addiction to the area and worse, it claims an estimated 30,000 more cars a day on Highway 101 would bring traffic to a virtual standstill.
On Opening Day, at least, opponents were right.
Graton Resort & Casino is managed by Station Casinos of Las Vegas. The 1,300-member tribe of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is made up of Coastal Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians.
Lynn Armitage, who braved the opening-day crowds, is a freelance writer in Northern California and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.
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