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City awaits casino money

Published: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 25, 2013 at 10:05 a.m.

If money won is twice as sweet as money earned, then Petaluma receiving money from the Graton Resort & Casino for police mitigation may not be so sweet.

As the casino enters its third week of operations, Petaluma has already begun to see the effects of the Bay Area’s largest Indian gaming casino, though it has yet to receive any sort of financial compensation for its troubles.

Last year, the Graton resort agreed to pay Petaluma $100,000 annually to offset the cost of traffic enforcement and additional police activities related to the casino. While the city has looked forward to receiving these funds, which could cover the costs of an additional officer, City Manager John Brown said the money has yet to appear.

“Last time I talked to the county, they hadn’t determined how the money would be distributed — once annually or on a quarterly basis,” Brown said. “But I believe we are expecting the first payment in this next calendar year.”

Brown said he anticipates the main impacts of the casino on Petaluma have to do with law enforcement, though the city is not restricted from using the money for other purposes. The City Council hasn’t decided how it will use the funds yet, and Brown said they will discuss the matter next year.

“But it would seem appropriate to designate it for law enforcement,” Brown added.

Another aspect of major gaming that can affect nearby communities is the criminal element that often follows casinos. Recently, local Petaluma massage therapists received disturbing phone calls from an unidentified man trying to recruit them for illicit massages and prostitution.

According to the American Massage Therapy Association, which several Petaluma massage therapists belong to, a man claiming to be an independent contractor for “high-roller” casino clients called several Petaluma massage therapists. He offered the therapists $3,000 up front for 10 massages to be conducted at later dates. He asked inappropriate questions, such as the therapists age, body type, ethnicity and whether they could perform tantric and sexual massages.

Both Rohnert Park Police and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department were alerted to the calls and have advised anyone receiving such offers to report them to the Rohnert Park Police Department at 485-2626 or the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department at 565-2121.

Petaluma police had an extra officer stationed in Rohnert Park and on patrol in Petaluma during the casino’s first week of operations, in case the influx of casino-goers led to an increase in criminal activity. From a law enforcement angle, things have been largely uneventful so far. The Petaluma Police Department has reported little additional crime since the casino opened. But the effects of the nearby Las Vegas-style gambling hall are not isolated to police activity.

Traffic has continued to be an ongoing issue, especially on weekends. Highway 101 though Petaluma on Saturdays and Sundays is often a stop-and-go mess of cars streaming into the “Novato Narrows,” where the highway tightens from three lanes down to two in Novato through the north end of Petaluma. Highway 101 has been widened to three lanes north of Petaluma, making the traffic increasingly bottlenecked the two-lane stretch through town. The Sonoma County Transportation Authority recently admitted that finishing the widening in Petaluma and north Marin County will not occur for at least seven years, providing little relief for Petaluma drivers who already suffer through traffic jams in town.

While local law enforcement works to keep up with the perceived negative aspects of the new casino, local business leaders and elected officials see opportunity.

“All the people who wanted to stop the casino fought the good fight,” said City Councilmember Chris Albertson. “But the casino is there, so what can we do to maximize return for everybody nearby?”

Albertson was among 40 people who attended a meeting on Friday with Graton Resort & Casino General Manager Joe Hasson. The meeting, hosted by the Petaluma Visitors Program and the Petaluma Downtown Association, introduced Hasson to the community and gave local businesses the opportunity to find out how to market their business to casino-goers.

“We’re in the very early stages,” said Downtown Association Executive Director Marie McCusker. “But we’re committed to creating a relationship with the casino in order to attract the people who go there. Petaluma is the town that many will be driving through to get to the Graton Resort. We want to make sure that people stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and shop in our stores.”

Though the opportunity may exist in the future for Petaluma businesses to advertise directly inside the casino, Hasson said it’s too early to start doing so right now.

“We currently have no way for companies in Petaluma to be advertised at the casino, other than food purveyors we carry,” said Hasson. “But that could come in the future. In the meantime, the best way to get the word out about local businesses is to tell my staff about your business.”

Petaluma companies at Friday’s meeting discussed setting up local hospitality tours for Graton employees. It was a small effort, but one that locals hope will build Petaluma’s business base.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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