Mixed reviews have met a recent poll showing that Cascade Locks residents are divided over having a casino in their hometown.
This week the poll results were used by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge to support its new campaign against a casino in the Gorge city’s industrial park. The Portland-based environmental group has already registered strong opposition toward the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ alternate proposal to build a gaming center on 40 acres of trust land just east of Hood River.
However, Cascade Locks officials and some of the residents surveyed contend the poll results are “bogus” since the research was paid for by the Grand Ronde tribe so the questions were deliberately misleading.
“It is absolutely absurd to suggest this community doesn’t support this project, even the people who would prefer some other form of economic development understand that there is just nothing else out there on the horizon,” said Cascade Locks City Administrator Robert Willoughby.
Toni Vakos, No Casino coordinator, joined the stand of Friends with an equally strong position statement.
“The questioned is not confined to ‘either Hood River or Cascade Locks’,” said Vakos. “There is another alternative that is gaining momentum statewide and that alternative is neither Hood River nor Cascade Locks.”
The Grand Ronde poll, conducted by Grove Quirk Insight of Portland, showed that 400 residents of Cascade Locks were split over the casino idea, with 47 percent in favor and 45 opposed. That poll also outlined that 36 percent of voters strongly opposed the project, compared to 32 percent strongly in favor.
According to a separate study, only 34 percent of a random selection of 500 voters statewide agreed with the Warm Springs’ plan for Cascade Locks, while a 53 percent majority were against it. Those results also showed that a 22 percent margin of support was outpaced by 43 percent who disapproved.
However, Greg Leo, Warm Springs spokesperson, said the treaty tribe conducted its own “scientifically accurate” poll in November which showed that 75 to 80 percent of Oregon citizens supported a casino in Cascade Locks.
Willoughby said the Warm Springs tally is upheld by a recent Cascade Locks newsletter survey that captured a 70 percent margin of support for ranking a casino in the top three economic development goals. He said that matches an informal poll of 100 residents at a townhall meeting last year and closely mirrors the 67 percent rating in the official 1998 study. In addition, he said election returns clearly show that both state and county candidates who opposed a casino did not capture the majority vote in Cascade Locks. He also contends that his vocal support of a “highly charged” political issue has met with virtually no repercussions, a stand he believes his counterpart in Hood River, Lynn Guenther, could not safely take.
“Most of the people who are speaking out against the casino don’t live here, they don’t know the economic situation facing Cascade Locks,” said Willoughy, reiterating that the rural community struggles with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
He said it is also difficult to understand why supporters of Scenic Area protection would prefer to have heavy and light industrial uses in the 120 acre park instead of a less intrusive tourist attraction.
“I think by placing the casino there the Scenic Area wins, the county economy wins, the Warm Springs win and we win,” Willoughy said.
But Friends argues that the traffic congestion and pollution of a possible three million visitors per year to a Cascade Locks casino would threaten the air quality and create traffic congestion. In addition, the organization is concerned about an “explosion” of growth in the small community that will require the extension of its borders into protected Scenic Area lands. Friends also believes that if one Oregon tribe is allowed to build an off-reservation casino, it would set a precedent for other tribes with an interest in the Gorge to also establish gaming centers.
Although the Warm Springs have vowed to build a casino on the hillside above Hood River if their proposal in Cascade Locks is defeated, both No-Casino and Friends are asking Governor-elect Ted Kulongoski to stand firm on current state policy.
“Governor-elect Kulongoski should not allow the hollow threat of a Hood River casino to justify changing the state policy on casino by allowing an off-reservation casino in Cascade Locks, or anywhere else in the Columbia River Gorge,” said Michael Lang, Friends conservation director.
Willoughby believes that if Kulongoski grants the Cascade Locks site he will save all parties thousands of dollars in legal fees and forestall a 10-20 year battle that will ultimately be won by the Warm Springs anyway.
“I understand that the Grand Ronde doesn’t want competition but I think it’s really unfair to suggest that the Warm Springs and Cascade Locks not be given a fair chance for financial independence,” he said.