California’s largest casino to open in Sonoma County

Anita Silva, 82, never felt deprived by her humble upbringing in a drafty shack with no indoor plumbing on a reservation in Sonoma County. Despite economic hardships, she said simply, “I didn’t remember that there were any.”

Silva, a tribal elder for the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, instead reflects on her years working in Indian health care, on her grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and on how much she loves playing the slots at Northern California tribal casinos. She still talks excitedly about the 94 bucks she won at the Dry Creek rancheria in one glorious payout two years ago.

Now, in the culmination of an improbable journey, Silva and fellow tribal members are about to get their own casino – and the proceeds from perhaps the grandest and most lucrative tribal gambling establishment in California.

On Tuesday, the 1,300-member tribe will open its Graton Resort & Casino, an $800 million development in the Sonoma County wine country. Situated next to Highway 101 in Rohnert Park, it will be the closest tribal casino to San Francisco and is expected to instantly rival Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln for supremacy in the California gambling market.

Industry analysts say the new development – with 3,000 slot machines and 144 gambling tables beneath chandeliers that glitter with 24,000 pink glass flower petals – may transform gambling in California, intensifying competition among high-end resorts and the pressure to build casinos near major highways and urban centers.

“This is the bear – no, make that the $800 million gorilla,” said Ken Adams, a Reno-based casino industry analyst. “It certainly is going to grow the total amount of gaming revenue in California. It’s going to force Cache Creek and Thunder Valley to respond competitively. ... We’re off to the races.”

Cheryl Schmit, an anti-gambling advocate who is fighting a major casino development another tribe plans near Highway 99 in Madera County, said the Graton resort and its prime location may signal a gambling future far different than voters envisioned when they approved tribal casinos in California.

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

A 2012 Standard and Poor’s market assessment said the Graton resort, to be managed by Las Vegas-based Station Casinos Inc., could generate annual gambling revenue of more than $530 million by 2016. General manager Joe Hasson, who formerly ran the Harrah’s and Harveys resorts in South Lake Tahoe, said the opening is being promoted in the Bay Area market with radio and TV spots airing with “such frequency that we could elect someone governor.”

Just how the Graton tribe reached this point is a textured and full-bodied saga, about scattered Indian bands, the emergence of a reconstituted tribe, and a quest – often bitter – to build a future.

The tribe, the beneficiary in the development, is composed of many descendants of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo Indians who in 1922 were herded onto 15.4 acres of steep terrain in remote Sonoma County that the federal government designated as the Graton Rancheria. While the casino suggests an aura of instant wealth, Silva, who grew up picking plums with Miwok farmworkers along the Sonoma coast, says she is just happy to live long enough to see the project come to pass for younger tribal members.

“People come up and tell me, Anita, you’re going to be rich,” she said. “I can’t comprehend that. What the hell is being rich?”

An unlikely protagonist

Greg Sarris, 61, is the screenwriter, novelist and Sonoma State University professor who leads the Graton Rancheria tribe. While Station hypes a 340,000-square-foot gambling palace and prize-winning chefs serving up exquisite dishes, Sarris talks of planting “sustainable organic farms” just beyond the parking lot.

And while the casino will employ 2,000 workers, Sarris also pledges to pay above-market wages at neighboring farms to local young people, and even “low-risk prisoners and undocumented workers” who will run “roving organic chicken farms” and till soil for vegetables and sedge plants for basket-weaving.

Sarris once penned a novel, “Watermelon Nights,” about a young man, confused and conflicted over the Indian community in which he lived. His short story collection, “Grand Avenue,” inspired by a working-class district of Santa Rosa, was co-produced by Robert Redford as an HBO mini-series.

With the casino about to launch, he is working on a new volume of stories on displaced people finding their way home. And he is repeating a platitude to tribal members and the public: “No amount of money will undo the poverty of our souls. We will have to do it ourselves.”

Sarris, who became tribal chairman in 1992, is a most unlikely protagonist. The man who helped guide the rebirth of the tribe and its development aspirations is blue-eyed and part Irish, Jewish, Filipino and Miwok. He grew up as the adopted son of a Santa Rosa family. Later, after Sarris had earned a Stanford doctorate in modern thought and literature and become a professor at UCLA, his search for his identity led him to a 1950s teenage romance in the Orange County town of Laguna Beach.

He learned he had been born to a 14-year-old white girl, Bunny Hartman, a childhood friend of Elizabeth Taylor, and a part-Filipino, part-Indian high school football star, Emilio Hilario, the great-grandson of a Coast Miwok medicine man named Tom Smith. His mother died after childbirth, his father of a heart attack in 1983, Sarris said.

“He (Sarris) found it so important to find out who he was,” said Silva, who knew Sarris as a teenager but didn’t learn until years later that they shared a common heritage. “He was looking for his identity. I tried to help him all I could.”

Though he had never set foot on the former Graton Rancheria, Sarris was embraced as he worked with Indians in Sonoma County to win congressional approval in 2000 to re-establish the terminated tribe and the right to acquire reservation land.

The tribe’s decadelong effort to build its casino in Rohnert Park drew vociferous opposition from area residents and politicians who complained the suburb would be overrun with traffic, crime and problem gambling. Some opponents questioned Sarris’ tribal roots.

Ultimately, the tribe reached agreements with Rohnert Park and Sonoma County to pay more than $400 million over 20 years to offset impacts of the casino. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a gambling compact, in which the tribe agreed to pay the state 15 percent of net casino winnings during the first seven years of operation and 12 percent in ensuing years.

Bracing for impact

Local opposition also has diminished as the tribe made traffic improvements, replacing a curved two-lane passage to the casino site with a four-lane boulevard. From its exterior, the casino resembles an upscale shopping mall, with outdoor signage for its walk-in restaurants.

“They have been good partners,” said Rohnert Park Mayor Pam Stafford, who was elected in 2006 as a staunch casino opponent. “They have been very responsible in how they worked with us to see what the impacts would be, and they have been very generous in helping financially to deal with those issues.”

Instead, other tribal casinos are bracing for impacts. The Dry Creek Rancheria tribe, which operates the River Rock Casino in Geyserville 32 miles away, predicted its business could drop by 30 percent once the Graton resort opens.

In Yolo County, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation’s Cache Creek Casino Resort, which draws heavily from the East Bay, also expects to take a hit. “There’s no doubt that there will be an impact on our business,” said Cache Creek spokesman Mike Traum.

He said the Brooks resort, which includes a 200-room hotel and a golf course – amenities Graton doesn’t have – and more than 2,000 slot machines and 120 table games, will seek to retain business by “nurturing relationships” from “a very loyal customer base.”

Doug Elmets is spokesman for the United Auburn Indian Community’s Thunder Valley resort, which includes a 300-room hotel, 2,500 slot machines and 135 table games. Elmets said Thunder Valley “will continue to look for ways to differentiate ourselves from the competition, whether it’s Graton or anyone else.”

Sarris said Graton eventually plans to add a resort hotel. Meanwhile, in the regal new setting, with natural skylights and terrazzo floors sparkling with mother-of-pearl shells, Sarris invited Fernando and Maria Elena Reyes – proprietors of his favorite local taco truck – to open a restaurant, La Fondita.

Confused, Maria Elena asked him what time she needed to drive the truck over for the grand opening. “No, no,” he told her, “you’re in the casino!”

Silva will be there as well. As the marketing people promote the next great thing in California gambling, Silva is coming to terms with leaving behind some of her favorite slots at the Dry Creek rancheria. “I don’t figure I’ll feel bad if I lose 40 bucks but do it here,” she said.

Then she reflected on it all. “This is just like a dream I never thought I’d live to see,” she said. “I’m lucky I’m still alive.”