Location, location, location is a well-established mantra in the real estate business. Tribal casinos are not exempt – particularly in California, where tribal casinos are a dominating influence in the state’s gaming industry (card rooms being the other major gaming industry).
The impact of the Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park, California, on the River Rock Casino on the Dry Creek Rancheria is a case on point. The River Rock Casino is some six miles west of the Geyserville, California, exit on U.S. Highway 101 on a two-lane road and up a narrow driveway to the top of a hill overlooking the Alexander Valley wine country. While the setting offers sensational views, it is not easy to get to. However, for 12 years it was the only casino in its service area. As a result, its location was of little significance until the Graton casino opened last November.
The Alexander Valley is one of California’s most productive grape-producing valleys and the home of some of the finest wines produced anywhere in the world. The land owners long ago organized as the Alexander Valley Association (“AVA”), and the organization has been an important and effective voice for the valley landowners and their primary industry. When Dry Creek first announced its intentions to develop a casino, the AVA leadership recognized that the Rancheria location was troublesome for many reasons, the most important of which was potentially heavy traffic through the pastoral community of Geyserville and the difficult travel for both cars and large trucks serving the casino along the two-lane road and up the hill on which the Rancheria was located. The AVA suggested that the casino be located on Highway 101 and identified available off-reservation sites. The Tribe understandably wanted to develop its casino project within the boundaries of the Rancheria, and with that in mind, the project was developed on the Rancheria hill, which required the development of water and sewer service, as well as a major construction project to “stabilize” the hill itself so that the casino facilities could even be constructed. The “hill stabilization” project alone cost the Tribe and its investors an additional $15 million.
Geyserville is some 30 miles north of the Graton casino in Rohnert Park, meaning that the Graton casino is more convenient to people in the high population areas of Marin County and San Francisco to the south. The Graton casino and resort also offers many drinking and dining venues – including several restaurants opened by celebrity chefs from the Bay area, as well as a resort hotel and extensive gaming stations throughout the property. And patrons save at least 40 minutes’ drive time each way on the multi-lane U.S. Highway 101, which Graton directly abuts.
The impact of Graton on River Rock has been significant. It reinforces the need to include in long-range planning for casino development the three key ingredients for any project placement: “location, location, location”.
Prior to the Graton grand opening this past November, the Dry Creek Pomo enjoyed a 12-year monopoly on gaming in the immediate vicinity and had the closest Highway 101 gaming facility to Marin County and San Francisco. During that time, the casino was so prosperous that the Tribe was making per capita payments in amounts reported to be $600 monthly to each of its 640 tribal members, who previously had little economic opportunity. The revenues for 2010 (the last year for which financial data is available) were reported to be $124 million, and River Rock employed more than 600 people. The Tribe itself had more than 60 full-time employees.
However, glory days do not always last. Since the Graton casino opened, the River Rock revenues have declined. Tribal officials state that their revenues have dropped by 30 percent. It has been asserted that the actual drop is greater. In any event, more than 100 of River Rock’s employees have moved to Graton, and the tribal employment has fallen from 60 to a reported “handful” of staff members. Also, the per capita payments are now reported to be substantially lower than what they were only a few months ago.
Adding to the economic troubles facing the Tribe is the report that it has an outstanding debt of $150 million owed to bondholders.
The Dry Creek Pomo is now disenrolling members. One of the disenrolled Dry Creek members is the former Tribal Chair who oversaw the planning, construction, and development of River Rock. A recent notification of another round of disenrollments has been circulated, and among the next 75 to be expelled are the two daughters of that former Tribal Chair. Fewer tribal members typically equates to larger per capita payments to the remaining members. This is a pattern of conduct that has occurred within several tribes experiencing economic downturns in casino operations.
As already noted, the 12-year run was wildly successful for the casino and the Tribe. However, the inevitable development of competition has become reality. The development of Graton to the south on Highway 101 will soon be matched by a smaller tribal casino proposed for Cloverdale, which is only 9.5 miles north of Geyserville and also abutting Highway 101. Yesterday’s “great” location can quickly become today’s “challenging” location, and this underscores the need for careful consideration of potential future competition and the selection of the best available site for a casino development.