Huge crowd opens NorCal tribal casino, feared as threat to Reno

LINCOLN, Calif. -- Traffic backed up seven miles as crowds jammed the new Thunder Valley Casino that northern Nevada gambling officials fear will draw customers away from the Reno area.

An estimated 8,000 people turned out Monday for the grand opening of the casino owned by the United Auburn Indian Community and operated by Las Vegas-based Stations Casinos Inc.

The $215 million gaming hall is expected to siphon away 10 percent to 20 percent -- $100 million to $200 million -- of Reno's gaming revenues in its first few months of operations, according to several Nevada gaming experts and executives.

"This is great, huh? You don't have to go to Reno," J.R. Leverton of Lincoln told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The day started with a short ceremony featuring remarks from Jessica Tavares, the tribe's chairwoman, and traditional American Indian dancing to bless the 200,000-square-foot structure. Tavares praised the community's efforts to bring about the possibility of economic independence for the tribe, and spoke of a vibrant future for its children.

"Today we can finally say that we will live better than our ancestors," Tavares said. "No more do we have to look to others for assistance. Today we open the doors to our future, a future full of hope, self-determination and self-sufficiency."

The casino was scheduled to open at 10 a.m., but with thousands already on the scene, cash in hand, the doors were opened early. Newly minted dealers, bartenders, waitresses, food service staff, pit bosses and security personnel, all of who had been told to be on the premises by 8, were ready.

"I love to gamble," said Lillian Powell, who made the trip from Pittsburg, Calif. "I don't have much money to spend, but I'd probably stay the night if they had a hotel here. I wanted to be among the first to be here when the doors opened."

General manager Scott Garawitz, a 10-year Station veteran who is employed by the United Auburn tribe, was all smiles.

"Things are going extremely smoothly," he said, not far from an ATM machine where a line of at least a dozen gamblers had formed. "People were waiting to get in here and have a good time."

Ultimately, Thunder Valley will have about 1,800 employees when the three large-scale restaurants open in the fall. Spokesman Doug Elmets said that of the current 1,500 workers, at least 200 were recruited from Reno casinos.

"They are experienced people who know the business," Elmets said of the Reno expatriates.

Annual salaries, including tips, range from $40,000 to $60,000, he said.

"I don't know if I'll be going back to Reno anymore," said Barbara Zalikowsky of nearby Roseville. "Reno is a little bit scuzzy these days, on the streets.

"Lake Tahoe is different, though. There's a lot in Tahoe that Reno doesn't have."


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