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Plans for Indian casino inch closer to reality despite opposition

By Kyrsten Martinez
On November 2, 2010

A local Native American tribe, the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria (FIGR), is making plans to develop a Nevada-style hotel casino complex to be built on the northwestern outskirts of Rohnert Park near Wilfred Avenue.

The FIGR is hoping that this casino will help boost the local economy and offer jobs and revenue for residents and students.

As of Oct. 1, the 254-acre site was removed from county jurisdiction and taken into a federal trust by the Federal Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. This means the county no longer has jurisdiction over the land and it is essentially a tribal reservation.

Not all locals are pleased. Some environmental groups are making strong efforts to halt the project.

One group known as Stop the Casino 101 sued the Department of the Interior as well as the FIGR in 2008. The group was attempting to stop the land in Rohnert Park from being taken into federal trust, which would have put a stop to plans for construction. As of October, the group will continue to file more lawsuits on environmental and land use grounds.

"It will be an environmental disaster," said Chip Worthington, a leader of Stop the Casino 101 coalition in a phone interview.

"If the project goes as planned it will have devastating impacts on the water supply and the sewers," Worthington added.

The casino's opponents believe the project will negatively impact Sonoma County by increasing traffic and creating potential environmental problems. One concern is for endangered species such as the California tiger salamander.

"All of these reasons are grounds for a lawsuit," said Worthington.

The proposed cost of the complex has been estimated at $1 billion, and as a result of where the land resides here in Rohnert Park, has stirred up controversy from different groups. According to FIGR, the casino project may include 2,000 slot machines, a 300-room hotel and a convention center.

According to statements released by FIGR, the casino will bring jobs and revenue to the county and will not create severe traffic or environmental issues.

After several attempts for a statement, Tribal Chairman and Sonoma State English professor Greg Sarris was unavailable for comment.

The next step for the tribe is to start negotiating a compact with California legislature and the governor. These negotiations will most likely be held after the upcoming election. It is up to the National Indian Gaming Commission, a federal agency that oversees Indian gambling, to determine whether the land is eligible for gaming.

Many of Rohnert Park's city council members are still not sure how this new complex will effect the surrounding areas.

"The city was divided two or three years ago, and I suspect that hasn't changed," said Councilman Jake Mackenzie who first supported the project, but later was the sole vote opposing the financial agreement. There has been debate on whether or not the casino would have a real impact on Rohnert Park's economy. Opponents of the project believe the casino will only have negative effects on the city and the surrounding area.

"There has been controversy over any Indian development of any sort on any Indian land," said Edward Castillo, a Sonoma State Native American Studies professor.

"Historically speaking, especially in California, the federal government has consistently tried to assert power over the Indians. It seems that these people do not want the Native Americans to have any power," he said.If the casino is built and opened here in Rohnert Park, the Federated Indians of the Graton Ranchero hope that it will not only help the surrounding community but offer jobs and revenue for Sonoma State students.

Students, too, are looking forward to more local jobs.

"I really hope that the casino is built. I have to go all the way to Santa Rosa for my job. I would love working here in Rohnert Park and make better money than I would anywhere else," said Diana Lee, an undeclared freshman.

Other students are looking forward to a more diversified nightlife in Rohnert Park.

"I have been at this school for so long and would love to have a better late night place to hangout. The Cotati Crawl gets stale after a while. Why not bring a little piece of Vegas to Sonoma County?" said Brian James, biology major.

According to the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria Web site, they are trying to make the project's impact as small as possible. The tribe is making an effort by giving money to Rohnert Park's Public Safety Department, about $3 million since 2004.

Castillo sees this action by the tribe as a sign that profits from the project will return to the area.

"I support Indian gaming and I am happy for tribes that diversify their investments. The tribe is going to see big time profits and these tribes give back to their communities. They share their wealth and everyone will see profits," said Castillo.

Despite the positive potential of the gaming complex, its opponents plan to hold their ground.

"I am disappointed at what has happened, and I don't know exactly what's going to happen next. The battle will continue. We're going to keep fighting and never quit," said Worthington. 

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