Last Tuesday, March 18, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to green-light a gargantuan makeover of Alexander Valley's River Rock Casino east of Geyserville. Sonoma County's cut? A hundred million bucks, to be parsed out over a 12-year period. If Sonoma County's $100 million sounds like an awful lot of dough, check the books. The presently operating and rather smallish River Rock tent casino brings in about $140 million in gaming receipts annually. In exchange for monies promised to the county, the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians gets to build a two-phase, 585-guest-room luxury spa resort.
One benefit a new casino resort promises is that once built, Highway 101 passersby will no longer feel compelled to ogle enormous gray parking structures plastered on the hillside behind the present casino. Judging from a River Rock artist's rendition of the new complex, these earlier garages will be obscured by attractive walls and buildings that dwarf even the sprawling multileveled garages.
Tribal chairman Harvey Hopkins claims the project "will result in greater support for housing, education and health programs for the members of our sovereign nation, and will provide jobs for the entire Sonoma County community."
Just two people voiced opposition to the memorandum of agreement at the county board's March 18 meeting. One was Third District County Supe Tim Smith, the lone vote to deny the agreement. "I have felt from day one that these facilities," Smith says, "are going to hurt the county and go against our general plan." Smith continued, telling us, "And I question whether the compensation will be adequate to cover the expenses that will arise as a result of building the casino. I don't think it should have been built there in the first place."
When asked whether this marks the end of tribal casino proposals in the county, Smith referenced Graton Rancheria's billion-dollar casino complex planned for incorporated lands west of Rohnert Park, and then alluded to another proposal to build a gambling hall outside Cloverdale.
Concluding its ongoing tug-of-war with Sonoma County assures the Dry Creek Pomo that that county will not stand in the tribe's way in obtaining a liquor license, though certain limitations regarding where, when and what can be served on the premises will apply. The agreement also calls for the tribe to ice plans to build a second casino on 277 acres just south of Petaluma along Highway 101—but only for the next eight years—and to earmark tribal properties running next to the Petaluma River as unimproved wetlands.