Skip to main content

Southern California Tribes Divided Over Proposed Indian Casino near Rohnert Park

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria's proposed 3,000-slot machine casino adjacent to Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, California got its first hearing before the state legislature on May 1, sooner than expected, reported the

The compact was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on March 27, but its awaits approval by the Senate Governmental Organization Committee, which met twice this week to discuss the bill. The state Legislature and federal Interior Department must ratify it before the tribe can start work on the project.

Nearby Indian nations had anticipated the compact would stir tribal opposition, because it involves significantly more revenue sharing by the tribe than other compacts in the state.

Among the requirements, the tribe must pay more than $10 million a year for the state to regulate gambling and fill special state funds that assist Indian tribes without gambling operations.

According to tribes opposed to the proposed casino, the rush for a senate hearing was "clearly an effort to get this through before the tribes can get organized against it,” Michael Lombardi, chairman of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians' gaming commission in Riverside County, told the in a May 2 article.

But, surprisingly, Paula Treat, a lobbyist for the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians in Riverside County, which runs one of the state's largest casinos, Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California, said during an informational hearing of the Senate in the State Capitol on May 1 that tribe does not oppose the agreement, the reported on May 3.

“This is not a compact that we would have agreed to; every tribe is a sovereign nation. But we are not opposed to this compact,” Treat said.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Those in support of the casino highlight the thousands of jobs the casino would create, also serving as an economic stimulus to the North Bay economy and 1,300-member tribe. “This is a good compact for Sonoma, for Rohnert Park and for tribes around the state,” said Jacob Applesmith, a senior adviser to Brown who negotiated key parts of the compact to bring financial gains to the tribe and local government.

Opponents site environmental and traffic concerns, being the largest casino in close proximity to the Bay Area. Concerned citizens also touched on social impacts, such as gambling addiction.

In accordance with the National Indian Gaming Commission's order of approval for the project, the tribe must break ground on the project during the dry season, April 15 to October 15, said Scott Nielson, executive vice president and chief development officer for Station Casinos, a Las Vegas-based gaming company the owns gaming-entitled properties and has also branched out into managing other casinos. Station Casinos is working with the tribe to get financing for the project, estimated to cost $700 million—a significant increase from earlier estimates of $433 million.

According to Federated Indians tribal chairman Greg Sarris, the tribe is in the red with Station Casinos, incurring $33,000-a-day interest debt to the company. Some of the debt stems from $230 million in pre-development costs it has accrued since its 2003 announced plans to open a casino on Highway 37. But due to environmentalists' protests, the tribe later abandoned the site in favor of Rohnert Park.

But the bulk of the tribe's debt is tied to its $100 million purchase in 2005 of 254 acres off Wilfred Avenue from now-bankrupt developer and financier Clem Carinalli and two other well-known North Bay businessmen.

According to Sarris, the tribe paid roughly 10 times more for the land than than the original asking price. The tribe was strapped for options trying to secure partners in non-gambling industries. “I think it's fair to say that the land sellers knew we were in a bind and they also knew we had what are considered deep pockets behind us,” he told the

A Legislature vote of the proposed casino at Rohnert Park, which requires a two-thirds approval before moving on to the ratification process at the federal level, has yet to be scheduled.