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Poker boom hits Petaluma

PETALUMA - A Petaluma cardroom is betting big on the boom in poker. The owners of the 101 Casino, long known as Sonoma Joe's, hope to break ground this fall on a new facility, costing more than million and creating space for 18 tables. The existing cardroom, originally built as a restaurant in 1968, is too small to hold the city's current limit of 15 tables. Players during the busiest hours sometimes wait 30 minutes for a seat, said Mike Owen, senior vice president for the Cal-Pac Group, which bought the 101 Casino this year. 

"In the evenings we're absolutely packed," Owen said. The cardroom is one of two in Sonoma County, which also is home to an off-track betting facility at the fairgrounds and a tribal casino in the Alexander Valley. Three other casino proposals are in the works, reflecting the growth of gambling into a multibillion-dollar industry in California. With the rising popularity of poker, which has become a staple of cable TV, the 101 Casino regularly has a dozen games where there were only three to five on a busy night as recently as three years ago. 

Gross revenue from California cardrooms climbed to $600 million in 2004 from $490 million in 2002, according to state figures. However, the reporting process has been refined in recent years so past revenue probably was slightly understated, state Justice Department spokesman Nathan Branigan said. Despite the increased revenue, some cardrooms have closed since the state stepped up regulation in 1998, and others say they can't compete with the state's 54 tribal casinos, which like their Las Vegas counterparts can offer a wider array of games. 

Those that remain are being snatched up by bigger players or expanding, consolidating the industry and increasing the numbers of tables, state regulators said. Some cardrooms in the Los Angeles area have as many as 200 tables. A statewide moratorium on new cardrooms that doesn't expire until the end of 2010 has resulted in a decline in the number of cardrooms from 115 to 94 since 1999, Branigan said. 

Owen said the moratorium makes it difficult as an industry to compete against tribal casinos. "The moratorium certainly minimizes the competition," he said. "But that being said, it's been a bit of an Achilles' heel to the industry because there's been a proliferation of tribal gaming and we're not really on a level playing field. "Tribal casinos, such as River Rock Casino near Geyserville, are allowed to have slot machines and offer other games of chance, while cardrooms are limited to variations of poker and blackjack. 

In cardrooms, players play against each other instead of the house and pay a fee - typically about $3 a hand - that rotates among the players. "The way cardrooms make their money is not on players winning and losing hands, but on how many players they have in their seats," Barankin said. "Cardrooms that stay in business tend to be more professional. "The 101 Casino sits alongside the highway at the north end of Petaluma, near a motel and a classic car dealership. 

If the expansion approved by the city, the new 101 Casino would be roughly 22 percent larger, with 14,236 square feet. The current building, which has cramped bathrooms and sewer problems and needs roof maintenance and other improvements, would be torn down. The new building would include a slightly larger gambling area, a nightclub, a restaurant separate from the bar, a banquet room and 160 parking spaces instead of 136. Initial plans for the new cardroom were panned by the city's architectural review board, but the company hired a local architect and has a new modern, stucco design that fits in better with the community, Owen said. 

If it's approved by the review board, Owen said the proposed expansion still would need Planning Commission and City Council approval. No hearings are scheduled. Under the most optimistic scenario, the company would finish the building in early 2006, Owen said. He said the popularity of poker is here to stay, which is why his company wants to invest in a new building and why the company, which mainly operates Galaxy Theaters throughout the West, is negotiating two other cardroom purchases elsewhere in the state. "If we thought it was a flash in the pan, we'd have simply remodeled, thrown some paint on the walls and called it a day," Owens said.


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