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Strategy needed to stop casino

When crafting a strategy to protect your community from an outside threat, it's important to know all the facts, be very well-organized and conjoin with state and national political leaders to prepare for the battle ahead. As Petaluma's elected officials finally begin showing signs of developing a more aggressive strategy to prevent a massive Las Vegas-style gambling casino from being built on the city's doorstep, it's clear that much more needs to be done to position the city for success.

Despite the fact that South County Supervisor David Rabbitt has repeatedly and vociferously conveyed his constituents' serious concerns about the casino threat to federal and state representatives, only now are Petaluma's leaders finally getting around to formally requesting assistance from those same officials. Mayor David Glass and the City Council should be working more closely with Rabbitt to ensure that this community's concerns are clearly, strongly and jointly conveyed to those with the power to stop a casino.

Organizationally, city leaders have spent precious little time developing a comprehensive strategy to prevent the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomos from turning the 277 acres of land it owns alongside Highway 101 at Kastania Road into a gargantuan casino. This is despite a clear message in 2006 from nearly 80 percent of local voters who said they want their elected officials to do everything in their power to stop a casino.

Hand wringing will not get the job done.

The Dry Creek tribe, led by Chairman Harvey Hopkins, operates the River Rock Casino near Geyserville. Shortly after buying the Petaluma property in 2005, the tribe submitted an application to develop "a class III gaming facility" on the site. Their intent: leapfrog ahead of the future Graton Rancheria casino in Rohnert Park to be closer to the large Bay Area urban population. When the Graton Rancheria casino opens later this year, the number of visitors to the River Rock casino will dwindle, and profits will plunge. Given that the casino located closest to the Bay Area population is likely to earn the biggest revenues and profits, it's logical for the Dry Creek Band to want to pursue its original plan to build a second casino in Petaluma.

To counter this threat, the City of Petaluma, working with Rabbitt, must get to work now. An effective strategy should eliminate any further discussions with Hopkins, whose disingenuous banter about building an alternate, non-casino development requiring city utilities is a smokescreen to divert city officials' attention away from his tribe's latest application with the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to take the land into trust. Once the property is taken into federal trust, local control over what may be built on the site disappears and land use decision-making becomes the sole province of the tribe, which may then proceed to build and operate a casino.

Ironically, rival tribal leader Greg Sarris, whose Graton Rancheria Tribe is about to open the doors to the Bay Area's largest gaming complex in Rohnert Park in two months, is suddenly advising the city to more aggressively oppose the Dry Creek tribe's application. Sarris is obviously concerned that a Petaluma casino would reduce his own casino's earning power, and he's right.

We've not always agreed with Sarris, but we have to admit that his proposed strategy makes sense for Petaluma, which would stand to suffer mightily from greatly increased traffic, crime and strained public services should a Las Vegas-style casino open locally.

The city's first priority should be to encourage the establishment of a legal defense fund to help underwrite this fight. Despite statements to the contrary, Hopkins is using the considerable cash generated from the River Rock casino to pay attorneys and lobbyists who are working the halls of Sacramento and Washington D.C. to ensure the land is taken into trust so a casino may be built.

At this point, the city and county have exactly zero financial resources to put up against Hopkins. That must change. Perhaps Sarris could be persuaded to contribute to a legal fund aimed at stopping a Petaluma casino. It would certainly be in his tribe's best interests to do so.

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