Thursday, April 20, 2023

How will Sky River Casino impact Elk Grove?

 (Note: I had written this story for the Elk Grove Citizen to be published around Sept. 1, 2022, anticipating a mid-September opening of Sky River Casino in Elk Grove. All of a sudden and with just a whisper on social media, the casino opened Aug. 16. After noting the Elk Grove Police blotter, which is printed weekly in the Citizen, it has become evident the top area of our city in which arrests are made is either along Promenade Parkway or at the intersection of Promenade and Sky River Parkway, the main entrance to the casino. I wrote this story in July and August of 2021 asking the question of how Sky River would effect Elk Grove. The jury is still out, or is it? Please comment below!)

Very soon long lines of automobiles will be turning off Highway 99 at Grantline Road and stream into the parking lot of Sky River Casino in Elk Grove. Recently, officials of the casino announced it will be opening the doors to customers in early September.

The Sky River Casino will include a 110,260 square-foot gaming space, 2,000 slot machines, and 80 gaming tables. About 2,000 people will be employed at the casino making it one of the city’s largest employers. 

But gambling won’t be the only thing going on at 1 Sky River Parkway. They will feature “The Market at Sky River,” a unique food and beverage marketplace with 12 different food and beverage venues, including culinary offerings from prominent local and regional restauranteurs.

Sky River was developed by Boyd Gaming, which will operate the facility under a management agreement with the Wilton Rancheria Tribe. The price tag for construction of the facility is a reported $500 million.

This will be the only Native American-owned gambling casino in Sacramento County. Others in the region include Jackson Rancheria near the town of Jackson, Harrah’s Northern California in Ione, Red Hawk Casino in El Dorado County and Thunder Valley, north of Rocklin in Placer County.

How successful will Sky River be over time with other similar gambling facilities nearby?

“We appreciate the question, but it's a bit premature,” David Strow, vice president of corporate communications of Boyd Gaming, wrote in an email in response to that question. “Our focus right now is getting Sky River Casino open in early September and getting the property off to a great start. We have a great location and fantastic amenities, and we think the community is going to like what they see when we open Sky River in the coming weeks.”

Boyd Gaming owns and operates 28 properties in ten states – Nevada, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – according to their website.

Nationwide, tribal gaming has been a big industry. According to the American Gaming Association, 515 Native American-run casinos in the country had gross revenue of $27.8 billion in 2020. They supported more than 676,000 jobs and made an economic impact of $105.4 billion on the regions where the casinos were located.

There are 82 tribal casinos in California, supporting a little more than 124,000 jobs making a $19.96 billion economic impact. The American Gaming Association’s most recent revenue figures is from 2016 where gross gaming dollars earned by the tribal casinos in California totaled $8.4 billion.

Because Sky River Casino sits on land that is considered a sovereign nation, local municipalities have negotiated a series of “in lieu” payments with Wilton Rancheria for services.

Tribal Chair Jesus Tarango told the Citizen at the March 9, 2021, groundbreaking of the casino the operation would invest $186 million in the city of Elk Grove and Sacramento County over the next 20 years to support police, schools, roads and other services. Plus, he says, Sky River would provide the tribe resources to invest in housing, education and healthcare for the 853 tribal members 

Elk Grove City Manager Jason Behrmann has been in discussions with the tribe for about 10 years, going back to his days as Galt’s city manager. One possible site for the casino was near that city off Mingo Road. In recent years, though, Wilton Rancheria decided on the south Elk Grove site for Sky River Casino and Behrmann was instrumental in obtaining a memorandum of understanding for Elk Grove with Wilton Rancheria. 

Elk Grove city manager 
Jason Behrmann

“We had may discussions with other cities where tribal casinos had been,” he explained. “We had discussions with police chiefs, engineers and others to see how it was like for a casino to come into or near your city. What were those impacts? What were those agreements? So, we did a lot of homework and a lot of discussions with other government agencies to understand what those impacts might be in our community.”

The result was a $10 million up front payment to the City of Elk Grove and a $4 million “in lieu” payment made annually for numerous services to mitigate the impact made by Sky River.

“Traffic’s a big one,” Behrmann said. “Obviously it brings in a lot of people, from in the community and, certainly, from out of town, as well, which can be both a good and a bad thing. A good thing can be they can spend money, not just in the casino, but can support area businesses, as well. But, you can have negative impacts with congested roads in the area and we try to address that to the best of our ability.”

Several Elk Grove residents have used this one concern repeatedly over the past few years in expressing their objection for a casino within the city limits. Lynn Wheat is one such person. She has actively been working with the city and the city council on its general plan updates the past several years.

“In what is clearly documented in the general plan update, the accompanying (Environmental Impact Report) and the over-riding considerations, the traffic congestion we are going to have is the traffic we are going to be living with because the Council feels any economic benefits outweighs any of the traffic that we are going to be living with,” she said. “So, we can ignore traffic because it is more important for projects to come to our city that will be an economic boost.”

With plans for the Sacramento Zoo virtually alongside Sky River coming in a few years, Wheat says, “You know what I see in five to 10 years? Los Angeles…I have seen this in too many other regions who did not come up with a smart growth plan.”

Increase in crime?

Another concern that was addressed in these negotiations with the tribe, according to Behrmann, was crime, both at the site as well as that which spills over into the community.

“What we found is that while there is crime to some magnitude at the facility, it is no different than a retail mall,” he said. 

Behrmann said in talks with municipal police chiefs near gaming casinos he was told there was little crime spilling over into areas near the facilities.

“It was fairly localized and primarily in and around the parking lots of those facilities,” Behrmann said. 

Casino to the east and Zoo to the west

Lennar Homes continues to build 289 homes starting at $500,000  in “The Elements in Sterling Meadows” a few hundred yards west of Sky River. Until recently the only egress in and out of The Elements was on Bilby Road which ends at the main entrance to the casino at West Stockton Blvd. Earlier this year a west egress opened on Lotz Road which to the south exits onto newly-widened Kammerer Road. 

Bilby Road, about a mile to the west of Sky River, dead ends into the future sight of the Sacramento Zoo.

Residents, the City and CSD recently celebrated the opening of Entrican Park, right in the middle of The Elements in Sterling Meadows. Chanan Singh, who has lived in the neighborhood since January, enjoys the new park and his new home in The Elements. 

“I don’t believe the casino will affect us,” he said. “It’s too far away. I feel safe here and I know Elk Grove Police, if you call them, will come quickly.”

Jeff, who didn’t disclose his last name, and his wife have lived for a year in The Elements. They have attended a recent community event organized by the Zoo. Their home would be a fairly short walk to the proposed parking lot of the Zoo along Kammerer Road. It would be a longer walk to Sky River. At this time, he has a wait-and-see attitude towards both attractions.

“What will it affect? Will there be a spill-over of crime? We really have to wait and see,” he said.

Jeff added that investors are already buying homes in his development knowing the Casino is nearby.

“About three houses away is an Air B-and-B,” he said. “I wonder if more will pop up because of the proximity of the casino.”

MOU’s with local municipalities

The $10 million upfront payment to the city, Behrmann said, was for building up the infrastructure, such as the roadways leading up to the casino. About a million-and-a-half dollars paid each year by the Wilton Rancheria will go towards law enforcement.

“We were able to hire some additional officers, so we can mitigate any spillover and promptly address any crime that might occur,” he said.

About $500,000 a year will be paid to Elk Grove for regular maintenance on the roads around the casino, according to Behrmann. Part of the city’s MOU contains a $400,000 payment to Elk Grove Unified School District and smaller annual payments to local unnamed non-profits.

“They were great partners with us in working with us on this MOU, negotiating this agreement, they were very willing to recognize the impacts and were willing to pay the community,” he said.

The tribe also negotiated similar MOU’s with the County of Sacramento and Cosumnes Community Services District. 

Behrmann said that should Sky River ever falter or close, the city and other local municipalities would continue to receive the annual “in lieu” payments from Wilton Rancheria.

“The payments are not contingent on any revenue the tribe brings in,” he said. “This is not tax revenues. Tax revenues fluctuate. This is a guaranteed payment regardless of how successful the casino is.”

This is unlike the past 13 years where the city earned no tax revenue from this site ever since construction on the planned Elk Grove Outlet Collection was halted.

“This prime land, was orginally going to be a regional mall, was certainly set up to be some kind of successful retail center,” Behrmann said. “If there weren’t these MOU’s negotiated then the city would have had significant loss for an future opportunity for revenues for different kinds of developments. (Wilton Rancheria and the City) were able to come to an agreement on that so that that land can be successful and produce the revenue that is going to be needed for not only a growing community, but also the impacts of traffic and everything that would come along from such a large development.”

Propane tanks and property values

The casino’s proximity to Suburban Propane’s large facility on Grantline Road has been one of the concerns which Wheat and others have brought up over the past several years. She says Suburban’s large propane storage tanks is on the Department of Homeland Security’s “Threat List,” yet development has continued very close by. Should those tanks be compromised in some way, thousands would be affected, Wheat claims.

“Anyone that lives close to there won’t be able to evacuate, especially if you look at the traffic congestion that will be along Grantline,” she claims. “How do they get out?”

Wheat quickly mentioned Suburban Propane has been proactive in updating and maintaining security at its facility to try to avoid such a catastrophe. 

Most of the residents of The Elements the Citizen spoke with didn’t know about the Suburban Propane facility. 

It’s too early and too speculative for those the Citizen talked to about effects the casino may bring to the property value of homes and businesses in its immediate vicinity. But, this concern isn’t just exclusive to Elk Grove. As David Frum wrote recently for “The Atlantic” magazine, the impact of casinos on neighboring property values is “unambiguously negative.”

“Casinos don’t encourage non-gaming businesses to open nearby, because the people who most often visit casinos do not wander out to visit other shops and businesses,” he writes. “A casino is not like a movie theater or a sports stadium, offering a time-limited amusement. It is designed to be an all-absorbing environment that does not release its customers until they have exhausted their money.”

Reasons for optimism

There are reasons, though, why the Wilton Rancheria tribal members and Elk Grove City officials should be optimistic about the future of Sky River. According to Allan Mallach, writing for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, “the economic and fiscal benefits of casinos, both to the state and the host cities, depend on where the casino visitors come from and where the casino workforce comes from. The ideal, from an economic standpoint, is a community with a large local workforce and also a large regional and multistate visitor pool.”

“The more local the workforce, the greater the share of casino revenues that stay in the community, and the greater the multiplier effect of those revenues on the local economy,” Mallach wrote. “The more that casino visitors come from outside the area, the less that the local community will suffer the displacement of revenues that occurs when casino-goers bypass local entertainment and other local spending.”


Drive from Elk Grove north to Sacramento along Highway 99 and the billboards begin at about the same spot as the new Sky River Casino.The week it opened, no fewer than two-dozen casino billboards were up on Sacramento County freeways.

The competition in the Sacramento area’s crowded tribal gaming landscape is not only clear from behind the wheel. It is also evident in the ever-evolving arms race for regional casino superiority.

Consider: ▪ A new 150-room hotel and an all-ages entertainment center under construction at Red Hawk Casino & Resort in Shingle Springs. ▪ Large new spaces for music and other events at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln. ▪ Ditto for another Sacramento-area newcomer Hard Rock Casino Resort Sacramento at Fire Mountain farther up the road in Wheatland.

Social Media Comments

On the Nextdoor app the Citizen asked Elk Grove residents for its immediate reaction to the Sky River opening. Here are what a few wrote:

“We really have no industry here and with all the new homes being built people have to work some place so I see it as job opportunities for many. If you do not approve of the casino, don’t go. If you do, enjoy.” – Genell Foltz

“If I push my car I can make it to the casino in three minutes…I have gone six times since it opened on the 16th. I really enjoy it. Slots are getting more loose. The last time I went there was not a machine I didn’t touch that didn’t hit right away. I came home with $933, only starting with $40. Not too bad! The parking lot can hold tons of cars so there should not be a concern with neighborhood parking anymore.” – Kathy Cline

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