Hundreds of cars idled in a line near Ione Monday afternoon, each hoping to score a parking spot close to the new Harrah’s Northern California Casino to catch its highly anticipated soft opening, which was scheduled for 4:29 p.m. The new casino has drawn mixed feelings from the community.
By 4 p.m., the parking lot had filled up, and casino staff and California Highway Patrol officers were turning people around. Traffic was at a standstill along Coal Mine Road from the north entrance. From the south side, stretching up the windy Camanche Parkway, cars were tucked off on the side of the roadway in every spot that had enough shoulder width to fit them. Visitors seemed to flock from every direction to catch a glimpse of what the new casino had to offer.
Stationary drivers launched questions at people returning from the casino grounds to their cars.
“Did you play the slots? How much farther? What’s it look like in there?” some asked.
A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection engine sat parked across the street from the entrance.
Though the brand new carpet had probably yet to retain the stale odor, the smell of cigarette smoke filled the nostrils upon entering the building, and the buzz of chatter and whir of rotating slot machines bounced around the enormous room.
A sea of people stood in line to acquire a player’s card to have their try at one of the 950 slot machines. At one of the 20 card tables, a blackjack dealer, clad in a long-sleeve button-up shirt raised his wrist to check the time.
Situated on 71,000 square feet of a 67.5-acre Buena Vista Rancheria Me-Wuk Indian reservation south of Highway 88, Harrah’s has attracted attention from all over the area.
It’s projected to bring 400-plus jobs to Amador County and help grow local businesses across the region, but local supervisors, residents and business owners have expressed a mix of emotions on the new development.
“I feel the impacts from the casino will outweigh the benefits,” said Amador County District 2 Supervisor Richard Forster. “Amador County has a history with one casino already. I believe the patrons of a casino come here to gamble, not to sightsee or shop at local businesses. A former undersheriff made the impact on the community clear when he said that crime went up exponentially with the opening of a casino. Maybe the home security businesses will prosper. The ‘soft’ opening caused gridlock and frustration for a small agricultural valley. How much is quality of life worth?”
Forster emphasized that the Jackson Rancheria Tribal Council has “contributed greatly into our community and is always there to help people and organizations,” and that he hopes for a similar level of commitment from the Buena Vista Tribe and Harrah’s.
According to Amador County Administrative Officer Chuck Iley, the tribe will make annual mitigation payments to support the county, including more than $11 million to be paid out for 2019. Contribution amounts will be adjusted on an annual basis.
A public safety contribution of $3.4 million will be used to hire 15 new positions at the Sheriff’s Office, three new positions at the District Attorney’s Office and one new position at Probation.
The Amador County Community Fund is receiving $1.4 million to offset “intangible impacts.”
The city of Ione will receive $200,000 to further mitigate its public safety impacts.
Additionally, costs of approximately $5.4 million per year will be covered by the tribe to fund the Cal Fire station across the street from the facility.
Other contributions include $210,000 for gambling and substance abuse, $188,589 for road maintenance, a direct contribution of $140,000 to the City of Ione and $35,000 to support Jackson Valley Fire Protection District Volunteers.
Sara Bowles, owner of the Old Frosty in Ione, said she’s bittersweet about the new casino moving in. While Harrah’s may have a positive impact on the local economy, she’s concerned with the traffic, crime and drunk driving that may come with it.
“It’s bittersweet for me because it will bring people to our town and to my business possibly, but all of our roadways, we have people that don’t respect them,” Bowles said. “As we speak, I have people that are pulling in from out of town.”
Bowles has owned the business for two and a half years.
More concerned for homeowners neighboring the casino grounds, Bowles added, “I’m just glad I don’t live out there.”
Buena Vista tribal representatives and Harrah’s staff could not be reached for comment.
The grand-opening celebration for the casino is slated for May 17 to 19, and will feature a light and drone show, live music and drawings with $40,000 in prizes.
In a Facebook post Tuesday morning, Forster said Public Works will be meeting with the California Department of Transportation, California Highway Patrol, Amador Sheriff’s Office, the City of Ione Police Department, and casino operators to develop a traffic management plan for the hard opening.