ROHNERT PARK -- In roughly a year's time, Sonoma County will be home to the Bay Area's largest casino, a prospect that has some people and businesses anticipating a significant economic boon to the region while others still vow to block a project in the making since 2003.

The massive $800 million Graton Resort and Casino last week reached a key phase in construction. Backers of the project -- including labor leaders and Station Casinos, which will manage the property for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria -- celebrated a "topping off" of the project with the hoisting of a 75-foot-long, six-ton steel beam into position near the future entrance to the structure, signifying commencement to the next phase of construction.

Upon completion, the casino is expected to create some 2,000 permanent jobs.

[caption id="attachment_67318" align="alignright" width="400"] A worker positions the beam used in the "topping off" ceremony.[/caption]

The tribe received approval to build the casino and hotel last May and began major construction in August. The project broke ground last June. Tribe members didn't attend the ceremony.

"This is an enormous undertaking that will be one of the signature projects of Sonoma County," said Jeff Janakus, who is overseeing construction of the casino as vice president of design and construction for Station Casinos.

The project calls for a 3,000-slot casino and 200-room hotel and will include a number of other amenities, including a resort and five-story parking structure.

[caption id="attachment_67315" align="alignleft" width="448"] Joe Hasson, vice president and general manager of the Graton Resort and Casino, addresses workers and officials assembled for the "topping off" ceremony at the project site in western Rohnert Park on Tuesday.[/caption]

Joe Hasson, vice president and general manager of the Graton Resort and Casino, said he expects the project to be completed by the end of 2013.

"We're now really full speed ahead," he said. The hotel portion of the project will be completed somewhat later than the casino, but Mr. Hasson said it was too soon to say exactly when.

But while construction quickly moves forward, the project still faces legal challenges from the local group Stop the Casino 101 Coalition.

"We've always been opposed to the location," said Marilee Montgomery, a group spokeswoman who lives near the site. "It's a very environmentally sensitive area, and because it's too close to homes and churches. That's been our main thrust."

The group has filed two lawsuits in its efforts to either stop or slow construction. The first is a California Environmental Quality Act suit against the city of Rohnert Park for allowing the tribe and Station Casinos to widen Wilfred Avenue, which is known to have endangered California tiger salamanders living nearby. The city didn't conduct any environmental impact review, Ms. Montgomery said.

The second lawsuit challenges the validity of the Graton Rancheria compact approved by Gov. Jerry Brown, charging that he lacked the proper authority to enter into a compact with the tribe for a Class III casino. The coalition maintains that the state legislature must cede sovereignty over the land to the federal government with a vote. "This has not been done with the Rohnert Park casino land," the group said.

Both lawsuits are still pending, and Ms. Montgomery said the latter suit, should the coalition win, would halt construction at the 254-acre site. She added that opposition is centered primarily on the location, and that the group has offered to help the tribe find another, more suitable space.

Nevertheless, the tribe and Station Casinos, along with labor unions working on the project, are moving forward, citing the economic benefits of both the constructing of the facility and of additional tax revenues for Rohnert Park and the county.

Sonoma County supervisors struck a deal with the casino that would provide at least $9 million annually to offset impacts of the project, plus as much as $38 million more per year if the casino is sufficiently profitable. The city of Rohnert Park struck its own deal that will provide a 20-year, $200 million revenue-sharing contract with the tribe and casino.

Additionally, the tribe will allocate 15 percent of net earnings from gambling to a state fund for the first seven years of operation. Thereafter, it drops to 12 percent.

Construction is expected to employ more than 700 local workers throughout various phases, much of it the result of a project labor agreement between Station Casinos and local labor unions, according to Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, which is affiliated with AFL-CIO.

"It really puts local guys to work," said Chris Snyder, district representative for Operating Engineers Local No. 3, an affiliate of AFL-CIO. "Station (Casinos) could have brought their own crew. It's been really great for local employment."

The project will also utilize dozens of local subcontractors, among them Ghilotti Brothers, Oak Grove Construction, Shamrock Construction and Castle Concrete Pumping. The general contractor is Sylmar-based Tutor Pereni Building Corp. Providing additional construction support is Redwood City-based Rudolph and Sletten.

It will take an estimated 700,000 labor hours to construct the 320,000-square-foot facility. Other highlights of the project include the use of 31,100 tons of structural steel, 14,000 cubic yards of concrete, 500 tons of iron reinforcing bar, 230,000 cubic yards of dirt, 289 miles of copper wire and 975,000 square feet of interior gypsum wallboard.

The casino anticipates attracting visitors from a wide area, possibly even from the Sacramento region.

"We'll certainly draw from the Bay Area and a radius of that size," Mr. Hasson said.