5 years later: How has Graton casino changed Sonoma County?
Five years ago, the largest casino in the Bay Area threw open its doors on the western outskirts of Rohnert Park amid much fear - and hope - about the ways it would change Sonoma County.
Thousands of people clogged Highway 101 and side streets to experience the debut of the $825 million Las Vegas-style gambling hub, built in a former cow pasture in a collaboration between a Nevada casino giant and a once-destitute Native American tribe.
Critics warned the 320,000-square-foot facility would lead to sharp increases in traffic, crime and personal bankruptcies while damaging the region’s environment and depleting its groundwater supply. Advocates countered it would unleash an economic tidal wave that would create jobs, fill government coffers and lift the fortunes of a tribe whose traditional lands were taken away by Congress more than 150 years ago.
The true impact, however, has been more subtle - and more potent - than many had anticipated.
While traffic has calmed since the Graton Resort & Casino opened on Nov. 5, 2013, tens of thousands still pour into the massive gambling hall each week, according to its leadership.
All the while, the 254-acre casino property has become one of Sonoma County’s largest private employers and cemented its status as a Bay Area tourist destination.
And the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns the casino, has begun flexing its political muscle in new and significant ways, launching campaigns worth hundreds of thousands of dollars while the casino generates revenue that tribal leaders say is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Tribal members have benefited greatly from the casino since it began welcoming patrons. Graton’s profits have funded annual payouts to members of the tribe, as well as the growth of social programs and college scholarships. Supporters of the casino say the broader community has benefited, too, both from the tribe’s expanding charitable donations in addition to tens of millions of dollars in required contributions toward local government budgets.
“We had dreams of providing great jobs for people. We had dreams of supporting the local economy. We had dreams of furthering our mission of environmental stewardship and social justice,” said Greg Sarris, Graton Rancheria’s tribal chairman. “In the last five years, we have done all of those things, I think, very well. I’m very happy about that.”
Before the casino opened, critics said the potential negative impacts would lead to an overall decline in the region’s quality of life. They warned it would increase traffic and crime, and deplete the supply of groundwater in the surrounding area.
But congestion diminished just days after the casino opened, according to the CHP and city public safety officials, and the water issues have yet to surface. Increases in arrests and reports of illegal activity at and around the property are evident from local law enforcement data, but authorities and local government leaders say the trends are not unusual or unexpected, given the size and nature of the business.
“I still remember people saying how it was gonna be Armageddon or, on the other side, how it was gonna be this huge cash cow,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district encompasses the casino property, which is sovereign territory of Graton Rancheria.
“It’s probably neither,” Rabbitt said. “It’s operating, and it seems to have kind of found its place within the community, and the community has found its place with it.”
‘Best year ever’
Graton officials won’t detail exactly how much money they are making from the resort, which is managed by Las Vegas-based Station Casinos. Tribal casinos are not required to make earnings public. But Sarris, a native of Santa Rosa, said revenues over the five years have now reached the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Sarris said 2018 has been the “best year ever.” From April through June, the resort recorded its most profitable quarter to date - a record that was immediately topped by the following quarter, which ended in September, Sarris said.
And among the resort’s 19 most profitable days, 18 were this year, Sarris said in a November interview. The other date was the casino’s very first day of business.
He attributed the success to “very bold” marketing, the debut of a new 9,000-square-foot nonsmoking area last month with about 300 more slot machines, and the resort entrenching itself further in Bay Area commerce and culture.
In November 2016, almost three years to the day after the casino opened its doors, Graton launched a new $175 million hotel that expanded the site by another 300,000 square feet. It includes a pool, spa and ballroom. The resort remains “jammed and booked and sold out,” Sarris said.