Sky River Casino, Sacramento County’s first tribal casino, caught everyone by surprise on Tuesday night. Sky River Casino opened its doors ahead of schedule.
There’s been a buzz about Sky River Casino for a couple of years. Final construction promises 17 restaurants, a blend of national and local eateries.
The @skyriverresort Instagram account posted a cheeky message at midnight on Tuesday that read, “psst … you up? We’re open!,” under a picture of rows of lit-up slot machines at the Northern California casino. Immediately, both the north and southbound directions of Highway 99 were backed up for a mile or more.
Sky River a product of Sacramento’s lone tribe
The Wilton Rancheria Tribe, Sacramento County’s lone tribe, has had its sights set on the abandoned shopping mall in Elk Grove for more than a decade, said Jesus Tarango, chairman of the tribe.
“I think it goes back to the ghost mall, so the residents of Elk Grove remember what this place looked like. And so to see what it is now and what it is going to become is truly a special moment, important to Elk Grove and also my people.”
Sacramento County residents may wonder where Sky River Casino came from and what happened to the Wilton Rancheria Tribe Resort & Casino. Chris Gibase, president and COO of Sky River Casino, explained that the two names refer to the same casino.
“Wilton Rancheria is the only tribe that’s from Sacramento County. Their history is obviously a long history and (has) a lot to do with the Cosumnes River and the area around here about nature. So Sky River was what we ended up choosing.”
The new casino brings 12 years of work to fruition
After setting their sites on the abandoned mall in 2010, builders broke ground on the new casino in early 2021. Despite worldwide challenges to secure building supplies, the tribe has been “lucky” in avoiding them.
Sky River Casino sits on the 300,000-square-foot mall complex and has devoted 100,000 square feet to the casino floor. The casino, dubbed “Sac Vegas” by the tribe, operates 2,000 slot machines and 80 table games, along with 17 bars and restaurants. They have hired 2,000 people from the local area and estimate a revenue boost of $125 million to the local economy over the next few years.
Due to the advanced opening, not all of the restaurants are up and running, but they will be soon. The Sky River Casino also plans to add a spa and hotel to complete the resort experience.
First-comers pack Sky River Casino and stop traffic
Within 30 minutes of opening the casino, 600 people were on the gaming floor. Parking lots were packed, causing the Elk Grove Police Department to issue the following statement:
“With Sky River finally opening, we expect many people to check it out. Please know that when the casino parking lots or the interior reaches max capacity, Sky River staff will shut down the casino parking lots. We have officers in the area assisting with traffic control. Please obey all rules of the road and traffic signs. The casino doesn’t have any other off-site additional parking. ‘No stopping’ or ‘No parking’ signs in the adjacent area will be enforced.”
Will Sky River offer sports betting?
As of now, the Wilton Rancheria Tribe has declined to make a statement on the question that will face all California voters in the fall. Will it offer sports betting?
Interestingly, Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming, which helped the Wilton Rancheria Tribe build the casino and will operate it, has plenty of experience in the industry.
With Sky River already planning to add a hotel and spa, they may find that adding a sportsbook makes sense. It represents another amenity to complete the gaming experience. But, more importantly, California sports betting could provide a vital revenue stream.
Sky River Casino would be Sacramento’s lone sports-betting option. Boyd Gaming also has a dedicated app, BConnected, should the mobile sports betting measure pass in November. Sky River could also partner with a more known online sports betting brand.
The sports betting experience, while still only speculation, could help Sky River become a major competitor against the Reno/Tahoe casinos. Also, it could better compete against the other tribal casinos in the broader central California region.
Sac Vegas to invest heavily in community
Gibase celebrated Sky River’s opening, calling it “a game-changer, an entertainment complex like no other.”
The plan is to invest heavily in the community. It starts with Sky River’s restaurants and bars. They’ve pledged to pull 75% to 80% of its products from within 150 miles of the casino. In the long view, the Wilton Rancheria Tribe plans to invest over $180 million in local police, fire, schools, parks, and other social services over the next 20 years.
Making the Sky River Casino a central player in Elk Grove’s lasting prosperity is crucial for the tribe. Depending on what happens with California’s two competing sports-betting measures, that prosperity could be significantly bolstered in the near future.