Subscribe

Graton Resort & Casino proposes hotel, gaming floor expansion

Graton Resort and Casino is proposing a major expansion of its gaming floor and a second hotel tower, moves that could solidify its dominance as the Bay Area’s largest gaming destination in the face of a competing new casino proposal in Sonoma County.

The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns and operates the casino on its 254-acre reservation off Wilfred Avenue outside Rohnert Park, want to expand the casino floor by 50% and add a five-story, 221-room hotel tower, according to a notice filed by the tribe last week with the city.

The expansion would further cement the casino as a leading Northern California destination and allow Graton Rancheria to become an even bigger player in the local hospitality market and California’s $8 billion annual tribal gaming industry.

The $825 million casino opened in 2013 with 3,000 slot machines, 144 blackjack, poker and baccarat tables, and several restaurants to cater to visitors around the clock. A 200-room hotel, convention space and ballroom opened in 2016.

The gaming resort is one of Sonoma County’s largest private employers, with more than 2,000 employees, and its workforce is likely to swell with the expansion.

The notice comes as the Koi Nation, another Pomo tribe, seeks to develop a competing gaming resort outside Windsor, a move opposed by Graton Rancheria and four other Sonoma County tribes, as well as the county Board of Supervisors.

Casino officials and representatives of Graton Rancheria declined to comment on the expansion. Tribal officials and casino managers as far back as 2017 floated plans to double hotel capacity.

An 850-page environmental study at that time examined potential impacts on traffic, groundwater and other resources — concerns shared by residents five years ago in a public meeting.

The current proposal is larger in scope.

New plans call for more gaming space at the front of the existing facility, which wasn’t included in the previous proposal and would increase the casino’s 320,000-square-foot footprint by 144,000 square feet. It will include a rooftop restaurant.

The hotel wing, which will be built adjacent to the existing hotel, will have more rooms. The resort’s swimming pool area also is set for expansion.

A 3,500-seat theater on the north side of the property and a new parking garage east of the casino are in the works.

The tribe plans to add a water tank to meet water needs.

The expansion could burnish the casino’s draw for out-of-town visitors and locals looking for a more all-encompassing entertainment destination, said I. Nelson Rose, a Utah-based professor, attorney and tribal gaming law expert.

But the planned growth comes at a time of uncertainty for the gaming industry.

Prolonged closures during stay-at-home orders and health protocols related to the pandemic hurt casino profits at a time when the gaming industry was already in flux, Rose said.

The industry was going through major demographic changes before COVID-19, with the crowd who would typically visit to play games aging, he said.

That has meant a shift away from just gambling to providing a more diverse experience for visitors.

“It sounds like this tribe has realized that and is growing its hotel and entertainment options,” he said.

Rose said adding hotel rooms and building the performance theater will attract more people and keep them on site longer, which means they’ll likely spend more money.

Sonoma County’s first Las Vegas-style tribal casino, River Rock Casino, owned by the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians, opened near Geyserville in 2002.

Graton Rancheria has an ongoing environmental study meant to examine potential effects of the expansion on the surrounding areas, according to the rancheria’s notice to the city.

The study will look at the project’s effect on air quality and water resources. It also will look at whether the expansion will impact noise, traffic and public services.

“I look forward to having a discussion with tribal members about what they want to do and how they want to do it and have the county act accordingly,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the western half of Rohnert Park that includes the casino.

Rabbitt said he knew, pre-pandemic, that Graton planned to expand the casino but did not know the specifics, or when the expansion would be announced.

The county does not have much of a direct role in overseeing the expansion plans because the casino sits on tribal land, which is under the purview of the federal government. not the county. However, Rabbitt said the county can review the plans and any impact studies, and offer input.

“From the county’s perspective, obviously it’s sovereign land and they have the right to do what they’re doing,” Rabbitt said. “We certainly wish them well. We want to have a conversation about off-site impacts, and environmental (impacts).”

Concerns about the impact to traffic, water usage and demands on local emergency response teams have surrounded the casino since initial plans surfaced in 2003. Any impacts to the surrounding community have not been as severe as feared, according to Rabbitt.

A year after the casino opened, Rohnert Park police records showed an increase in crime in the area, including car theft, fraud, DUI, narcotics and prostitution, with the increases ranging from significant to minimal. Former Rohnert Park Police Chief Brian Masterson said at the time the increase could not be necessarily tied to the casino.

Tribal officials and proponents of the casino have long touted the development for the financial benefits it conveys to the tribe’s more than 1,400 members and the local economy.

People can weigh in on potential impacts to non-reservation land during a public comment period that runs through May 4.

Rohnert Park City Manager Darrin Jenkins said the city hasn’t had any conversations with tribal or casino officials about the expansion. Officials learned about the tribe’s new plans from the notice submitted to the city, he said.

It is unclear what the expansion plans mean for the existing revenue sharing and mitigation agreements struck with local governments.

The tribe has an agreement to pay a total of $251 million over 20 years to Rohnert Park for public safety, education and other community services.

Separately, the tribe agreed to pay Sonoma County about $9 million a year for 20 years to address negative impacts of the casino.

The city is evaluating the expansion proposal, Jenkins said.

“We’re just at the beginning of the process,” he said. “We’re interested in seeing their analysis, and we’ll make a determination on future actions when we have that analysis.”

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has a history of opposing local casino projects. Though the board opposed Graton’s casino when first proposed, Rabbitt said he doubts the board will formally oppose the expansion.

Last week, the board voted to adopt a resolution opposing a different casino project, proposed by the Koi Nation for a 68-acre piece of land on Windsor’s eastern outskirts. The resolution questioned whether the Koi had ancestral ties to Sonoma County.

All five Sonoma County tribes wrote letters to the board opposing the Koi’s proposal.

Rabbitt noted that Koi’s proposal and Graton’s expansion are different in that Graton is a “known commodity, in a known location.”

“The difference here obviously is Graton has been up and running,” Rabbitt said. “Graton is one of the five established tribes in the county, no question about that.”

The Koi Nation does not oppose Graton’s plans, Koi tribal Vice Chairman Dino Beltran said in a written statement issued on behalf of the Koi.

“The Koi Nation supports the rights Congress granted through the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and the ability of all tribes, including Graton Rancheria, to exercise those rights to the fullest extent to further their economic self-sufficiency,” Beltran’s statement read. “We seek the same IGRA rights to build our Shiloh Resort & Casino in Sonoma County.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Show Comment

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette