By CHUCK DAUGHTRY
Special to the News
There will be a casino in the Columbia River Gorge. The question is whether the casino will be east of Hood River within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area at a site nobody wants, or on industrial property in Cascade Locks, where the local community wants and supports the development.
The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs have the right to build a casino on land east of Hood River that was in trust prior to the passage of the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. The land east of Hood River is within the National Scenic Area and will undoubtedly solicit opposition. But the tribes have a legal right to build on this site and will ultimately prevail. The tribes have hired an engineering firm to design the casino and are proceeding full speed ahead on the site east of Hood River.
There is an alternative. The tribes have expressed a willingness to waive their rights to build a casino east of Hood River in exchange for the right to build a casino in Cascade Locks.
The new site is not the Government Rock location that was rejected by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. The new site is located within the Port of Cascade Locks’ industrial park, completely within the city limits.
One of the two specific purposes of the National Scenic Area act is to protect and support the economy of the Columbia River Gorge area by encouraging growth to occur in the existing urban areas. Cascade Locks is currently a depressed economic blight that detracts from the beauty of the Gorge.
The casino development will attract considerable capital investment. The Warm Springs tribes have budgeted more than $250 million in initial capital outlay that would provide an immediate economic stimulus to our community.
The casino development will be tasteful and constructed with the same level of style and grace as the tribes have achieved in Kah-Nee-Ta and Warm Springs. Cascade Locks has been in an economic recession for more than 20 years. The Columbia River Gorge, as a region, has not done much better.
Hood River County has consistently the highest unemployment rate in Oregon. Average wages in Hood River County are consistently the lowest in Oregon. According to the 2000 Census, Cascade Locks has the lowest average wage in Hood River County.
Cascade Locks has 17 percent of its families living in poverty. Even worse, 60.5 percent of its families with young children live in poverty. This is nearly double the statewide average.
Cascade Locks is among the poorest of the poor when it comes to income and poverty. According to La Clinica, a low-income health insurance provider, the percentage of Hood River County residents who have no health insurance is double the state average.
Cascade Locks didn’t benefit from the economic expansion of the 1990s, as our economic base has stagnated and declined. The timber recession and the passage of the National Scenic Act in 1986 initiated the downward spiral. Foreign competition and regulations have accelerated the economic decline of our locally grown fruit industries. The closure of mills and aluminum plants has resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs to the area.
The Warm Springs tribes recently hired ECONorthwest to do an economic impact study for construction of a casino in Hood River County. The casino alone would create 1,000 new jobs. All of the jobs lost in the last 20 years could be replaced with one project. The average annual income for jobs directly attributable to the casino would be almost $31,500, more than double the median per capita income in Cascade Locks.
It is hard to imagine another project or development that could offer this kind of impact, both in jobs and workforce development. The benefit to the local economy is estimable. The local community, including Skamania County, overwhelmingly supports the casino.
We need this to happen to have a chance to stop the economic death spiral that is strangling the Columbia River Gorge.
Chuck Daughtry is general manager of the Port of Cascade Locks.