Greg Sarris Filled with Gratitude

November 6, 2013
By Kent Porter

Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Graton Rancheria, greets customers at the opening of the Graton Resort and Casino Tuesday Nov. 5, 2013 in Rohnert Park. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

As the first crowds streamed through the doors of the Graton Resort & Casino on Tuesday morning, Greg Sarris was there to greet them with a wide smile on his face. He had been on site since 5 a.m. taking care of last minute details.

The public opening of the $800 million gambling palace came after 10 years of lobbying, legal wrangling and construction, at times in the face of stiff opposition.

Sarris, the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, who oversaw every aspect of the casino down to the color of the carpets, said he felt grateful the doors were open.

“At the same time with that gratitude, with the new opportunity with the opening, is an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a responsibility that we continue to do the right thing with this opportunity that we have,” Sarris said.

Sarris spoke during an interview 15 minutes after the casino opened. He said that the tribe can now turn its attention to meeting its obligations to the city of Rohnert Park and Sonoma County, including paying as much as $25 million a year to preserve open space.

“The whole thing is going to position us, hopefully, to become keepers of the land once again and to continue what we already started with our legal and binding (agreements) with the county and with the city of Rohnert Park,” he said.

“That sets a blueprint for what’s important, to mitigate all the effects of the casino. But number two is to position ourselves to be keepers of the land, and that’s that $25 million that we’ll give each year. That’s really important to us. This has never been about shiny lights. It’s never been about a new color TV. It’s been about the opportunity to do the right thing,” he said.

Sarris said he is happy with the casino’s open, spacious design.

“This is the first casino in the world that has sky lights. It’s the first casino where you can always see where you’re going,” he said.

“The concept in the past with casinos was that the customer would get lost in the casino and not know his or her way out. I wanted something light and airy. I wanted a new concept, something where you could always see the mountains, always know where you are in the casino, where there’s an open flow,” he said.

Sarris, a Sonoma State University professor, said he does not gamble, but doesn’t discourage gaming among tribe members. Much of the casino’s opposition has centered around the negative effects of gambling.

“I don’t play, I eat,” he said. “I’m really boring. I’m a nerd. I’m a college professor. People can do whatever they want. I want people to be happy, healthy and responsible, whether they’re Indians or non-Indians. This is a destination center for people to have fun and enjoy themselves. I don’t want sadness here. That’s why I designed it the way I did, light and airy and fun.”

Sarris spoke about future plans for the tribe’s 250 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the casino, which include a hotel and a sustainable garden.

“There’ll be no housing on the reservation. But we’re working on the plans and financing for the hotel and we will begin that in the near future, hopefully, within months,” he said.

“We are starting to plant our sustainable organic farm where we’re going to grow organic vegetables, use undocumented workers and others, and pay them a living wage, and sell the fruits and vegetables at cost in low-income neighborhoods,” he said.

He said that the tribe must pay off the debt associated with the casino’s construction before tribe members start seeing large payouts.

“The payouts will start, but they won’t be big. We want to get our debt paid down. We have a billion-dollar debt essentially,” he said.

“Many people are touting me as one of the greatest Indian leaders in the country, and all this hyperbole you hear. But I have to laugh because if I were to leave the tribe now, only (President George W.) Bush would have left his nation in more debt than me,” he said.

Opening the casino ranks with other important days in Sarris’ life including the day in 2000 the federal government restored the tribe and took the 254 acres of land west of Rohnert Park into trust for the tribe in 2008.

“This is a step. I’ll never forget the day that we got restored and I heard President Clinton had signed the legislation. I was driving my car on Wilshire Boulevard and I pulled over and cried. I think, that was so important to me. And then the land getting taken into trust, all of it is important,” he said.

“I’ll be happy when I see the fruits of this. This is not the end of the road; this is just a step. When I see the fruits of this casino at work in sustainable gardens and in a community program and so on, that’s when I’ll be truly happy. This is the beginning of a new chapter. This is the beginning of us being engaged and empowered citizens of Sonoma County,” he said.