By Bill O’Driscoll, Reno Gazette-Journal
Tribal casinos are rolling again in California.
Revenues among California’s 68 gaming sites operated by Native American tribes rose modestly in 2011, reversing three years of declines, according to a report released this week.
For Northern Nevada’s commercial casinos already hurting from the impact of a decade of tribal gaming next door, the challenge to stay in the game for the coveted Northern California market only grows, observers say.
“This isn’t going to help,” said Alan Meister, economist at Irvine-based Nathan Associates Inc., and author of the annual Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report.
“This is a turning point now for recovery in California. It shows, I think, part of what’s going on in California is there’s room for growth,” he said of an overall 1.6 percent rise in tribal gaming revenues in 2011 to $6.91 billion, the most among the 28 states with Indian casinos and one-quarter of the U.S. total.
“It indicates a pickup of more gaming business for California that’s not available to us here,” said Richard Wells, president of Wells Gaming Research in Reno. “It shows California has gotten past the recession’s declines and is starting to go up.”
That in itself is notable, he said, but forthcoming expansion of tribal casinos, including the $800 million, 200-room Graton Resort and Casino set to open in November in Rohnert Park 40 miles north of San Francisco, will further heighten the stakes for Northern Nevada.
“It will definitely impact any business coming to Northern Nevada from the San Francisco Bay Area,” Wells said, adding that even more casinos are envisioned for the northern half of California in the future.
In Washoe County, state data show annual gaming revenues have fallen 30 percent since 2002, partly from recession but more from Northern California tribal casinos siphoning off gamblers who would otherwise trek over the Sierra, Wells and others say.
Those casinos were a key factor in last year’s bankruptcy reorganization of the Silver Legacy Casino Resort in Reno.
The property emerged in October intact with its debts restructured, and CEO Gary Carano insists that even with the addition of the Rohnert Park resort, the region can succeed with its “total guest experience.”
Gaming veteran Ferenc Szony, who heads up Truckee Gaming LLC, which last year acquired three area properties led by the Sands Regency Hotel and Casino in Reno, agreed.
“If we simply look for a California patron who needs to gamble, we’re out of luck. Tribal gaming can provide that commodity,” he said. “We need to focus on things other than just a machine or a table and provide a fun and diverse experience, offer more value than just a ‘casino of convenience.’”
Others, too, say Reno-Tahoe region as a collective destination serves as an ace card over tribal casinos.
“A lot of casinos in one location, so people have choices once they get here,” Wells said. “In Reno, you can go to a hundred restaurants. That’s a big advantage for our market.
“What we’ve really lost most is the day gambler who drives over, gambles and drives home,” he said. “But as one destination with multiple casinos, that’s an advantage.”
And that, Meister said, is something tribal casinos can’t mimic.
“They have the advantage of being much closer to the customer base,” he said of casinos in the greater San Francisco-Sacramento region, notably the Thunder Valley hotel-casino in the Sierra Foothills off of Interstate 80.
“But California’s are scattered compared to anything Reno has to offer with gaming, food and beverage, entertainment, golf courses. Reno is still a very good weekend getaway.”
More and more, Reno-Sparks-Tahoe region casinos are catering to the locals market to supplant lost revenue. That focus has worked from the start for the Bonanza Casino, celebrating its 40th year in business in north Reno, said general manager Ryan Sheltra.
He acknowledged tribal casinos “have absolutely crushed” the Northern Nevada gaming market, but he maintains old-fashioned good service, as well as tending to locals, works despite it.
“Operators still here have to be smarter about costs, debts,” he said. “It’s a tough market, but taking care of people still works. It’s a page from the old Bill Harrah handbook. You can still succeed.”