Tribal leaders quelled some fears about the aesthetics of the proposed Hood River casino by unveiling "naturalized" design plans on Oct. 3.
However, polarized viewpoints still prevailed during an informal mediation session between the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Hood River government officials. For almost two hours a civil debate waged over the high traffic volumes, housing shortages, and environmental impacts that would be created by construction of a gaming center just east of Hood River.
Carol York, county commissioner and facilitator, finally got a strong favorable vote from the assemblage to investigate whether professional mediator Sid Lezak would be available to help negotiate a "win-win" settlement. York was acting on a suggestion previously proposed by several parties because they were impressed with the impartiality of Lezak, a retired federal judge, from his help on past issues.
This week's forum followed up on the tribes' Sept. 19 visit to Hood River and was held on the reservation at the Kah-Nee-Tah resort. The all-day agenda was set up to provide local officials with a better understanding of the Native American culture. Tribal leaders also wanted to alleviate development concerns by giving a tour of several existing holdings that had been built to "complement" the surrounding landscape. Although a number of serious issues were laid on the table, there was also cautious camaraderie during the traditional salmon bake and heritage dances.
The assemblage included representatives from the cities of Hood River and Cascade Locks, Hood River County, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Port of Cascade Locks. There was no one present from No-Casino, the citizens group which is strongly opposed to a gaming center in Hood River.
Although the tribe begins geo-technical studies on the Hood River site next week, there was still hope among the majority of the group that Gov. John Kitzhaber could be persuaded to change his mind and allow the facility to be built on Government Rock in Cascade Locks. The tribe purchased that property in 1999 and has initiated the process to have it reclassified as trust land for construction of a destination resort.
Chris Dearth, Kitzhaber's legislative aide, was present to hear that debate, but reiterated that he was only there on a fact-finding mission and not as a participant.
Dennis Karnopp, tribal attorney, said that Kitzhaber's veto for siting a casino in Cascade Locks had turned the eyes of the tribe back to Hood River as the most viable property for the facility. Tribal leaders have previously stated that they expect the gaming center to generate more than $100 million in annual revenue, money that would be used to offset the decline in timber harvest and provide essential health and education services.
"We studied every parcel of trust land the tribe owned and this is the only site that will provide the economic development we need," said Karnopp. "We wouldn't be doing this if it made sense to do it on the reservation, which would be much simpler."
He said the new casino would also solve some of the economic woes facing Hood River County which, according to the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, currently has an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, more than three points about the state average of 6.0 percent.
Karnopp said the casino would bring 500-700 jobs (some seasonal) and only about 10 percent of these would be filled by tribal members since the majority would not relocate from their homes on the reservation.
Greg Leo, tribal public outreach coordinator, said employee wages would start at about $8.50 per hour for service providers (not including tips) and peak at about $25 per hour for top managers.
"The idea is to have a variety of jobs and salary levels with an emphasis on creating a good work environment to keep people in these jobs and avoid a lot of turnover," said Leo.
Karnopp said the proposed project could be finalized and brought before the full 1,500-2,000 voting tribal members for their approval by the end of the year. If they agree, Karnopp said formal negotiations would then begin immediately with Kitzhabers' office to set up the parameters of the gaming operation.
The conceptual drawings presented by the tribe depicted a gaming center that was intended to provide "spectacular" views of the Columbia River through a full northern face of non-reflective glass and an 11,600 square foot deck/patio. The wooden building was set into a terraced slope that screened between six to eight levels of lower level parking, each of about 70,800 square feet. In that design, the casino was about 50,000 square feet and an additional 63,400 square feet had been reserved for a fine dining restaurant, entertainment area, conference rooms, gift shop, child care center, game arcade, cultural exhibits and administrative offices.
Karnopp said the draft plans had been created to fit the facility on the existing 40-acre trust land but could be modified if the tribe was successful in its bid to convert 160 acres of newly acquired properties into trust lands, which would make them exempt from government regulation. Those parcels are adjacent to the existing site and Karnopp said they could be used for support services, such as parking, a wastewater treatment plant and a water reservoir that would be fed by two existing wells.
Hood River city and county leaders have all expressed strong concern over the casino's anticipated 2.2. million annual visitors, especially if the tribe uses the legal access it claims from the historic Columbia River Highway just south of the Mark O. Hatfield State Park. Leo said the tribe is "very open" to working out another route that would avoid use of the narrow scenic passage.
"We recognize that there are significant problems with the current off-ramp," said Karnopp.
Karnopp said the tribe has just performed an environmental assessment to measure the effects of developing the mostly forested land into a casino site. He said that information will be released for public review next week.