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Five months after its tribal backers won final federal approval to move ahead, the largest casino resort in the Bay Area is starting to take shape on the northwest edge of Rohnert Park.

The project, launched by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, is still in its early stages but has already invigorated union construction workers battered by the long economic slump in the North Bay.

So far, at least 150 union workers have found jobs on the $825 million project. It is expected to create 750 construction-related jobs while it is built over the next year.

The tribe's vision, which was on hold for close to a decade as controversy, lawsuits, negotiations and bureaucracy strung together the years, is now taking form in the contours of concrete and the geometry of steel girders rising from the 66-acre building site.

The curving roof line of the 332,500-square-foot casino building has been shaped. A concrete slab covers channels below the floor, which have been laid with pipes to transport coins from 3,000 slot machines that will be installed. And a parking garage big enough for 5,511 vehicles is rising.

It is a heady time for the 1,300-member tribe, which never doubted it would arrive, said its chairman, Greg Sarris, who led the effort resulting in the Graton Rancheria's 2000 federal recognition.

"We go, we take one step at a time," Sarris said. "It was never a dream for us; it was a reality."

Labor leaders backed the project against fierce opposition from critics worried about the spread of gambling, the casino's impact on water supplies and its addition of thousands more vehicles on local roads.

That support came, in large part, because of agreements that Sarris negotiated with the tribe's financial backer, Station Casinos of Las Vegas, to ensure local union workers would build it.

Those agreements are paying off now, they say. After a recession that wiped out half of union construction jobs in the North Bay, it is union labor, putting in six or sometimes seven days a week, that is moving dirt, pouring concrete, laying conduit, framing walls, paving the parking lot.

"It's been fantastic," said Denise Soza of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 551, who dispatches workers to the project site.

Last week, she sent 24 electricians -- from apprentices earning $19.20 an hour and up to journeymen earning $46 an hour -- from the IBEW hall to the casino job, up from five a month ago.

"It gives me a sense of security," said apprentice electrician Andrew Geoffrion of Petaluma, who started working on the project in September and expects his job to last a year.

"I can save up some money for when the time comes that I'm off of work. I'll have a bank account," said Geoffrion, 23, who earns $31.20 an hour.

The number of workers varies daily, but 85 to 95 percent of them are members of North Bay union halls, representing cement masons, carpenters, laborers, electricians, operating engineers and sheet metal workers, according to union officials and Station Casinos.

Darius Anderson, part of an investment group that purchased The Press Democrat last month, is a lobbyist for Station Casinos, although he said he is no longer involved in the Rohnert Park project. He was a consultant to the tribe, but no longer serves in that role, according to both Anderson and the tribe.

There have been whispered complaints that local workers and businesses have been bypassed or given short shrift in favor of out-of-area labor or firms. But union officials say that hasn't happened, and that the project will only lead to more work. The project could grow by 60 percent, to 534,000 square feet, if a planned 200-room hotel is built.

"We're not even close to peak manpower. That's months away, so we have many, many more opportunities for subcontractors and local workers to go out to this project," said Jack Buckhorn, secretary-treasurer of Sonoma Lake Mendocino Building Trades.

The Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Local 300 has 10 to 12 men on the job every day, said business agent Chris Knerr.

"They (Las Vegas-based lead contractor Tutor Perini Corp.) have honored their numbers when it comes to the slab. They brought two guys from Vegas and everybody else has been out of Local 300," Knerr said. "They're hiring out of the halls."

When it's in full swing, approximately 450 union construction workers will be employed at any given time, 95 percent of them expected to be local, said Station Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson.

"It was always important to me and the tribe that our project created the opportunity to provide good jobs for members of our local community," Sarris said last week. "Unions are extremely important and raise the bar on what it means to earn a real and decent living."

Weather permitting, Max Lorenzana, 33, is to start work this week as an apprentice cement mason earning $19 an hour.

"I'm excited because I'll work every day and it's better money," he said. He used to do carpentry jobs, when he could find them, for $16 an hour.

"This is much better," said the father of two.

The apprenticeship program through which Lorenzana got the job -- it offers priority to American Indians but is open to all -- is a signature of the project, said Natasha Medel, the Graton Rancheria's tribal liaison.

"We want to make sure that our individuals, if they are not skilled in a trade, we send them to the union and they get trained, not for a temporary job, but for a lifetime career," she said.

About 45 people have been identified as suitable for the program and sent for training as of this week, Medel said.

"It's a great gig," said IBEW electrician Cornelius Bracy of Santa Rosa.

Bracy, 30, earns $25 an hour as an apprentice and said he last had "steady work" three years ago.

"The recession, that whole deal, everything slowed down," he said. "I'd say it went to like half."

The casino job, he said, "It's like a dream come true."

Sarris and the Graton Rancheria -- as well as Bill Stern and Marty Bennett, labor activists who negotiated agreements with the tribe on union labor -- are to be recognized as "working-class heroes" next week by the North Bay Labor Council.

The decision to use union workers "was completely up to the tribe, and that's why it means so much that they really went to the mat for it," said Lisa Maldonado, president of the Labor Council, an umbrella organization for the region's unions.

Sarris "easily could have given on that," she said. "It wouldn't have hurt him or the tribe."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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