Courtesy Graton Resort & Casino/Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria
The exterior of the new hotel, part of a $175 million expansion of the Graton Resort & Casino, owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in California.

Graton Rancheria Combines Glitter, Social Consciousness in $175M Expansion

Lynn Armitage

It happened like clockwork, just as planned. On November 15 the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, California, cut the ribbon on its more than $175 million expansion and finally made the “resort” part of its name official.

“It’s been almost three years to the day since we opened the casino, and we always wanted a resort. Now we have it,” said Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the 1,300-member Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria who won federal recognition for his tribe in 2000. He believes they have significantly upped the ante on gambling destinations in Sonoma County with the first casino in Wine Country offering an onsite hotel—six stories high with 200 rooms. “It’s the frosting on the cake of our overall vision.”

This delicious finish to the 342,000-square-foot expansion also includes an opulent, but warm, lobby featuring two bars and lounges, a 10,000-square-foot spa and salon, a fitness center, an Asian restaurant, the area’s largest convention center and a 30,000-square-foot outdoor oasis and pool. But not just any pool. This 7,000-square-foot lushly landscaped centerpiece includes private cabanas, a pool bar and floating lounge chairs where you can eat and drink while in the drink.

However, it’s the convention center that Sarris emphasized during an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.

“The largest meeting venue in the North Bay had accommodated only 500 people,” said the tribal chairman, who hopes to attract big corporate events and big-name stars for shows. “Our new ballroom and convention center seats up to 1,700 people for dinner and 2,000 people for a show. There’s nothing like it around. We inaugurated the space with Patti LaBelle and are hosting dances there for the Latino community every two weeks.”

But Sarris takes the greatest pride in the compassionate work environment that he has created for nearly 2,000 employees—a fulfillment of the tribe’s mission of environmental restoration and social justice. Not only does the casino and resort pay more than minimum wage for entry-level jobs, but also, no matter what the job classification, every “team member” who works 20 hours a week or more receives full medical, dental and vision benefits, with no payroll deductions. Basically, it’s free.

“Well, I believe there is a $10 deductible for brain surgery,” quipped Sarris. The company also offers a 401(k) retirement plan with matching employer contributions.

What’s more, Sarris is committed to keeping his employees—of which 150 are Native American—properly fed and nourished.

“We have a 450-seat team-member dining room where we serve a complete buffet of breakfast, lunch and dinner 24/7 to our team members,” he said. “We have different sections for health food, Asian and American cuisines, and an elaborate salad bar. And it’s all free to our employees during their shifts.”

Sarris added that his social justice business model is having a ripple effect in the community.

“The amazing benefits and high wages we provide has put pressure on the local hospitality industry to raise its wages,” Sarris said. “In Wine Country, Latinos are not often paid very well, but they are here. For us, dignity in the workplace must be first and foremost.”

Of the 72 tribal casinos in California, Graton Resort & Casino is one of the largest, according to the Casino City 2014 Report. Sarris attributes its success to “good management, good marketing and the blessing of an optimal location.” If the success of the casino is any indication, the new hotel and resort should do gangbuster business, too, anticipates Sarris.

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“Out of more than 400 American Indian casinos in the U.S., Graton is ranked No. 4 in the nation—ahead of Foxwood,” he said. “To put that into perspective, we have been open for only three years!”

For this Native leader, success carries with it a great responsibility to help the world.

“When Indian people have these opportunities, we have to do what our ancestors always did—take care of the environment and other people,” said Sarris. “There’s too much greed and fighting and other crap that goes on, and we are replicating what the colonizers have done instead of fixing it.”

As part of a unique compact brokered with California Governor Jerry Brown, the tribe has agreed to share a portion of its proceeds for 20 years with the City of Rohnert Park and Sonoma County to help offset the impact of the resort and casino on public safety and other public services. Lori Nelson, vice president of corporate communications for Station Casinos, said about $5.4 million a year is earmarked for Sonoma County, and the City of Rohnert Park gets between $8.5 and $10.5 million annually.

“This tribe has chosen to take the greatness of this opportunity and help the people around us,” Sarris explained. “Hopefully, we will have a huge influence on not only other tribes, but other Native American businesses.”

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