Sonoma braces for ‘monster’ casino opening

Amid drama and controversy, California’s largest casino is finally ready to deal cards Tuesday.

The Graton Resort & Casino, which occupies 340,000 square feet outside Rohnert Park, will house 3,000 slot machines, 144 blackjack, poker and baccarat tables and nine food court eateries.

Owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the opening is expected to be a huge success for the financially struggling community. According to Dennis Whittlesey, an Indian law attorney whose worked on casino developments, it’ll be a game-changer:

“[The casino is] a force to be reckoned with in gaming. The day the open, they’ll probably be one of the three biggest Indian casinos in the country.”

He added:

“This is really a monster.”

Tuesday’s 10 a.m. opening is expected to bring 10,000 first-day customers. CHP officers are already warning commuters to be patient with the inevitable traffic delays, especially on Highway 101.

Inside the $800 million casino, the most expensive private development project in Sonoma County history, patrons will be entertained 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

According to a 2012 Standard and Poor’s market assessment, the Graton Casino could generate more than $530 million annually by 2016.

Ken Adams, a casino industry analyst from Reno, said nearby casinos will have to step up their game:

“This is the bear — no, make that the $800 million gorilla. […] It’s going to force Cache Creek and Thunder Valley to respond competitively.”

But its decade-old development has been plagued with controversy since day one.

While the casino will employ 2,000 full-time employees and drive millions in shared revenue, naysayers are concerned about its impact on the county’s community.

Protestors cite gambling addictions, groundwater supplies and traffic jams amongst their concerns.

Chip Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who heads the Stop Graton Casino group, said the casino will destroy lives:

“You can take a garbage can and put glitter on it and paint it up, and it’s still a garbage can.”

Others, like anti-gambling advocate Cheryl Schmit, wonder how Graton Casino will effect the entire state:

“Here we have this massive Las Vegas-style casino very close to an urban area at the gateway to San Francisco. Everyone is pushing forward. We’re going to wake up in a few years and California will be a full-service gaming state.”

Even with opening day just hours away, opponents haven’t given up.

Currently, they are appealing a judge’s ruling by arguing the tribe doesn’t own sovereign rights over the reservation, making the casino illegal.

Casino supporters, on the other hand, say the development will help elevated a depressed native community. According to a 2007 survey, 71 percent of Graton Rancheria members were found to be low-income.

Wes Winter, an early supporter of the casino project, told the Press-Democrat the impact will be far-reaching:

“It’s going to be such an economic driver for the county, and the jobs it’s providing are incredible. But most importantly, it’s what it’s doing for the tribe. The tribe is getting the validation that they deserve, and they’re going to have the income they need.”

No matter how the cards play out, others are just hoping for the best, like former county Supervisor Ernie Carpenter:

“[The casino] came in with a bang, and hopefully it will become more of a whimper. I hope the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s here; it’s going to have an impact.”