The opening of one of California's largest Indian casinos on Tuesday drew throngs of visitors and snarled traffic in the state's wine country.
The $800 million Graton Resort & Casino opened at 10 a.m. and within a few hours the parking lot was full and the California Highway Patrol was advising drivers to find alternate parking.
The casino — owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria — is 50 miles north of San Francisco and features Las Vegas-style gambling with 3,000 slot and video poker machines, blackjack and other card games.
“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, casino general manager.
California has more than 60 tribal casinos that generated 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 Indian casinos in the Sacramento region.
Still, there is 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 a clear advantage for the casino, Hasson said. Graton has flooded the region with TV and other advertising.
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 while being managed by Las Vegas-based Station Casinos.
For the 1,300-member Graton Rancheria tribe, the casino opened 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 and signed a gambling compact with the state last year.
It is still facing a lawsuit from opponents who say the land where the casino was built is controlled by the state and therefore not eligible for a casino.
The group, Stop Graton Casino, has appealed a judge's decision to dismiss its lawsuit.
Group spokeswoman Marilee Montgomery said casinos create traffic and consume people's discretionary income, hurting businesses.
“The cost to the community is so large because you have all the related effects,” she said.
Tribal officials say in addition to providing jobs, the casino will contribute $25 million to county parks and open space. The owners have also agreed not to develop a casino on any other land they acquire in Marin or Sonoma counties.
“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,” said Greg Sarris, tribal council chairman.
The tribe will initially put more money into programs that help poor and elderly members while paying down its debt, he said.