One of California's largest Native American casinos opened Tuesday in wine country, and its owners are counting on its proximity to San Francisco to help bring people through the doors.
As expected it had big crowds on opening day.
The California Highway Patrol said at noon that its parking lot was full. Drivers were advised to find alternate parking.
The $800 million Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park - owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria - features Las Vegas-style gambling with 3,000 slot and video poker machines, blackjack and other card games just 50 miles north of the city.
"We've built it for convenience, access and accessibility, and then we've added quality to a level the market has not seen before,'' said Joe Hasson, the casino's general manager.
California has more than 60 Native American casinos that produced about $6.9 billion in revenue in 2011, according to a recent report about the industry by economist Alan Meister.
Revenue grew by about 1.6 percent in 2011 after three years of declines, Casino City's Indian Gaming Report showed.
Graton is 30 miles south of River Rock Casino, also in Sonoma County. There also are several large Native American casinos in the Sacramento region.
But there is still room for growth in California's gambling market, particularly in populous coastal counties, said I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa and an expert in gambling law.
"We're clearly not reaching the saturation point,'' he said.
The less than 45-minute drive to Graton from the Golden Gate Bridge is among the casino's advantages, giving it access to the entire Bay Area, Hasson said. Graton has flooded the region with ads, including television spots.
The 340,000-square-foot casino also will feature four full-service restaurants, nine casual dining options and three lounges. It will create full-time employment for more than 2,000 people. The casino will be managed by Las Vegas-based Station Casinos.
For the 1,300-member Graton Rancheria tribe, the casino comes after years of lobbying, negotiation and reviews.
The tribe of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo descent had its federal recognition restored by an act of Congress in 2000. It signed a gambling compact with the state last year and successfully fought off a lawsuit by opponents who argued that a road-widening project was not exempt from state requirements for an environmental study and would endanger the threatened California tiger salamander. Casino critics, more generally, raise concerns about gambling addictions and other social problems.
Cheryl Schmit with the group Stand Up For California said the state needs to pay close attention to the social and economic impacts of casinos when negotiating compacts with tribes, particularly given the potential for more casinos in the state.
"When you have these facilities foisted on the state, those compacts need to include judicially enforceable local agreements,'' Schmit said.
The Graton agreement, overall, has "significant'' regulations attached to it, including protections for employees and casino patrons, she said.
The tribe, additionally, will contribute $25 million to county parks and open space and has agreed not to develop a casino on any other land it acquires in Marin or Sonoma counties, said Greg Sarris, tribal council chairman.
"What we feel as much as gratitude is profound responsibility to use this opportunity to mold a future not just for our youth and our people, but for non-Indians as well,'' he said.
In addition to paying down its debt, the tribe in the short run will put more money into programs that help poor and elderly members, he said.