After a decade-long effort to open an urban casino north of San Francisco, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria have gained federal approval to move forward.
On Oct. 1, National Indian Gaming Commission chairwoman Tracie Stevens sent a letter to the tribe and to Stations Casino, approving their Class II management contract. This means that the tribe can open up a gaming facility on its land in Rohnert Park, a city of 41,000 located 50 miles north of San Francisco. The tribe and Stations Casino representatives were not immediately available for comment.
Meanwhile, a local anti-casino group vowed to block the facility in court.
The Gratons do not currently have a state gaming compact that would allow them to operate Class III machines. Class III describes traditional slot machines, which make up the backbone of most casino gaming operations. It is the slots that are at stake when a tribe negotiates a compact with the governor’s office.
Class II machines use internal math that follows the rules of bingo. Any federally-recognized Indian tribe can operate Class II games on tribal lands. These types of machines have generally been considered less desirable by players, and have not been seen as competitive with Class III casinos.
However, the Graton’s urban location and lack of nearby Class III facilities could make a Class II casino very viable. The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians operates a successful casino in San Pablo based on 1,100 Class II machines.
Indeed, with faster processors and better computing, gaming machine makers like AGT can now make “bingo” machines that can mimic slot machines, video poker machines or essentially any other gaming experience from the players point of view.
These were the type of machines that were at the center of the “charity bingo” disputes in California in 2008. Back then, numerous non-tribal groups were operating Class II gaming facilities, often filled with players who had no idea they were officially playing bingo. These facilities were largely shut down when the governor signed SB 1369 by Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, that fall. Among other restrictions, the bill allowed cities and counties to close these facilities.
Local governments won’t have that option if the Graton’s decide to open up a Class II facility.
Earlier this month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled that the tribe could take 254 acres into Rohnert Park “into trust.” This means these become tribal lands, which the tribe can generally do what they want with under the concept of tribal sovereignty. They bought the land in 2005.
The tribe is believed to still be seeking a compact to open a Class III casino.
“We wouldn’t comment on anything we don’t have jurisdiction over anyway,” said Jeff Macedo, deputy press secretary to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, of the NIGC approval. As for a compact, he said, “We keep negotiations private as part of ensuring the integrity of the process.”
Local casino opponents vowed to fight on.
“What is not clear from the letter is whether that’s their plan now, if they’ve going to pursue Class II and when,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who represents the area in question and has been critical of opening an urban casino. He added that he is going to continue to try to “prevent” the building of any casino in the area.
Marilee Montgomery with the group Stop the Casino 101, noted that Stations Casino needs to emerge from bankruptcy proceedings before a casino is likely to be built—something that won’t happen before next spring.
She also said he group was planning to sue on two different grounds. First, she said, they’re suing to challenge to land trust application, something they were not able to do before the land was taken into trust this month.
“Our position is that the mere transfer of a title doesn’t constitute the ceding of authority of California lands,” Montgomery said.
She also said that area, though urban, is an undeveloped area within the range of the genetically-distinct Sonoma County population of the California Tiger Salamander—meaning that is should be protected habitat.
In other words, she said, there are still many steps before the tribe would be able to build a large, permanent casino facility, whether it was Class II or Class III.
“They could go put up a metal building and put some gravel down and hope it doesn’t rain too much this winter,” Montgomery said. “That land gets standing water on it. It has engineered drainage ditches all over. This is marshland.”