It cost more than $800 million to build, spans 340,000 square feet and will employ 2,000 full-time workers. It also carved a deep rift in Sonoma County's political landscape over the past decade, spurring legal action, acrimony and even some death threats.
But on Tuesday morning, the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park opened its doors an hour ahead of schedule to a screaming crowd of thousands. With that, one of the largest casinos in the state -- and among the largest tribal gaming operations in the nation -- kicked into gear, swamping roadways as thousands of Bay Area motorists headed north.
California Highway Patrol Officer Jon Sloat said one motorist reported a four-hour drive time from San Francisco to Rohnert Park -- – a 48-mile journey that generally takes an hour. The morning commute on Northbound 101 was at a near-standstill beginning in Novato.
And, once on city streets, many motorists ditched their cars at hotels and business parks to made their way on foot, plodding across a large field toward the hulking casino like "zombies," Sloat said.
"I wouldn't say this is worse than we thought it would be," he said, but "it's pretty much the worst case scenario we expected, with just the sheer volume of vehicles coming in."
Unlike most, the casino was designed with large windows that welcome natural light. It features 3,000 slot machines, and 144 blackjack, poker and baccarat tables. It is owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and managed by Las Vegas-based operator
A massive regional media blitz has been counting down the days, then hours, to opening. Though doors were slated to open at 10 a.m., Station Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson said tribal chairman Greg Sarris -- who won federal recognition for the tribe in 2000 and has been the leading force behind the casino –- emerged at 9 a.m. to greet "tremendous terrific crowds outside" and offer them early entry.
They were greeted by traditional lion and dragon dances at all three entrances. The casino has 13 restaurants, four of them full-service, and Nelson said that at mid-afternoon Tuesday there was a 200-person wait list for one of those -- M.Y. China.
"People are patient and I think their whole purpose in coming out was they just wanted to be here for the first day," she said, estimating that crowds –- and traffic gridlock -– should wane within a few weeks.
The casino was first proposed in 2003 but construction did not begin until last June. To win support and offset negative consequences, the tribe agreed to pay about $9 million a year to Sonoma County for 20 years, and a total of $251 million to Rohnert Park over 20 years for public safety, education and other services.
Vocal opponents put forth the traditional arguments, saying the casino would bring crime, enable addiction, and cause traffic congestion and other environmental pressures too great for the region to bear.
A lawsuit filed in state court by a group called Stop Graton Casino alleges the land was improperly placed in federal trust because the state never ceded it. A trial court ruled against the group but the case is now under appeal.
The group contends the land was not historically home to the 1,300 member tribe, which consists of both Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people.
Rohnert Park pastor Chip Worthington, who has led the opposition, called it the "most egregious case of reservation shopping in the whole state."
Worthington, who visited the casino Tuesday, said he felt vindicated by the heavy traffic congestion and thick cigarette smoke inside –- environmental impacts the group had warned of.
“This is [Gov.]
Local response was mixed. In an online posting on the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's regular traffic updates, Jamie Wallace said the traffic was "one of the many negative effects that will arise over the next weeks/months."
"Sadly, RP has been my home and for 12 years," Wallace wrote. "I loved that no one knew or cared too much about it. ;') It was quiet and family oriented. It got missed in the mix of chaos Now we're a major player on the map. I will be moving."
But resident Jessica Smith, who recently moved to Las Vegas, said she was envious that others were getting to experience opening day without her.
"Lucky!" she wrote. "It's super good luck to play on a new black jack table with new cards! Guess I have a little bit of gambler's superstition, but I would love to be there today! I'll be home just after Thanksgiving so I'll have to go and see it!"