The four Hood River County Commissioner candidates registered strong opinions on Wednesday about Wal-Mart, a tribal gambling casino and a Mt. Hood Meadows destination resort.
About 80 community members took seats in the Hood River Middle School Auditorium to hear the discussion sponsored by the Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG), a land-use watchdog group.
Incumbent chair John Arens, seeking re-election to his at-large position, pointed out that while all three developments had proven to be “emotional issues” for many citizens, it was important that county officials follow the correct legal processes to ensure that each proposal was evaluated on its own merits.
“It is our responsibility in government to protect the rights of all people,” said Arens.
He registered opposition to a casino in Hood River but was favorable to the gambling facility being built in Cascade Locks, a willing community.
His opponent, Rodger Schock, who is also seeking the position of chair, gave a resounding “no” to the idea of both a destination resort and “big box” retailers, stating that these were inappropriate land-uses for the rural county.
Incumbent Carol York, running for reelection to Position 1, said, “We currently seem to have a lack of consensus, we need to get our act together as a community and not be so divisive.”
Her opponent, Ladd Henderson, told the audience, “I think we have to be very careful not to install walls to abolish one development and then end up with the result of stopping the next one.”
Arens said that Wal-Mart faced an uphill battle to meet traffic, compatibility and both streamside and wetland concerns, but the project would qualify for approval if these conditions were met, because the land was zoned for commercial use.
Arens said that since no application had yet been submitted for a destination resort it was difficult to give a definitive answer.
“This is somewhat of a guessing game because Mt. Hood Meadows has not come forward with a specific plan,” said Arens. “I certainly would not rule out a destination resort without looking at a real proposal.”
Arens pointed out that a well thought out project could bring $1-2 million of additional revenue to the economically-depressed county, in addition to room tax revenues.
“Given the need for funding county services such as roads, schools, police, and fire protection, I’m willing to look at a proposal,” said Arens.
Schock said since the Wal-Mart application had already been submitted, it should be approved if it correctly addressed the 56 areas of concern laid out by county planners.
“I don’t think big businesses go with a small town,” said Schock. “If you think folks with a lot of money in their pocket can come to town and do anything they want then you shouldn’t vote for me.”
Schock also speculated that the county’s recent controversial land exchange with Meadows was one more movement to facilitate the construction of the destination resort.
“The money’s been spent and I’m sure the deal was legal but it does appear we are moving in methodical steps to make that resort appear,” said Schock.
About the casino, Schock said that he was strongly opposed to having it built on the hillside east of Hood River but was respectful of Cascade Locks residents’ desire to locate the gaming center in their city.
He said that county officials should seek avenues to help existing businesses expand and grow, and that liveability in Hood River should not be sacrificed by uncontrolled growth.
“Let’s work with what we’ve got,” said Schock.
York said Hood River County was in “dire” financial straits and needed a diverse economy which offered a wide range of employment opportunities.
She said each of the three development applications, when submitted, should be weighed on its own individual merits with a balance found between the environmental concerns and possible job and tourism opportunities.
“Development should be compatible with its surroundings, I see benefits in each of these development proposals, but I also see negatives, and I think it’s up to the commission to reduce the negatives and enhance the positives,” said York.
She said she was strongly supportive of Cascade Locks’ desire for the casino and believed that a Wal-Mart could be made compatible with Hood River by having it housed in several smaller buildings in a parklike setting.
“I’ve been asked many times about the rumored Meadows proposal, but how can I be for or against something when I don’t even know what it’s going to be?” asked York. “We ought to give developers a chance to make their proposals before we make any judgments.”
She said an “environmentally-sensitive” resort could provide year-round jobs and opportunities for forest, conservation and agriculture education programs.
Ladd Henderson, who is running against York, said he was morally opposed to a casino being built anywhere in Hood River County.
He claimed “absolute confusion” about the debate over the destination resort since the county was seeking to market itself to the tourism trade and there was already recreational development on the north face of Mt. Hood.
“I don’t understand how we have decided that retail is wrong so now we are going to promote the county for tourism and find more job opportunities — but not in that location,” said Henderson. “And now I’m further confused because I’m being asked to be for or against something that I haven’t even seen.”
He also said it was confusing how the big fight had evolved over Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a super center at the junction of Country Club and Frankton roads when the 16 acres of commercial property had been for sale for 12 years.
“Nobody should have been surprised when it was finally purchased,” said Henderson.
On these and other issues, Henderson said the county board needed to be more responsible in its policymaking by factoring in the way its legislation worked on the ground.
“We have to look a long way done the road, if the decisions will have a long-term effect it could really make a difference,” said Henderson.
He said Hood River was driving away potential investors by developing an “anti-growth” reputation across the state and that it was important not to cultivate the “visit but don’t stay” philosophy of the late Gov. Tom McCall.
All four candidates agreed that plans for any development within the county should be based on an “environmentally friendly” design.