Strong ties are developing between two communities struggling through financial hard times -- and both share the common belief that one man is stopping them from enjoying a brighter future.
Greg Leo, spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, announced this week that the tribal vote over placement of a casino will most likely take place in April. He said because of Gov. John Kitzhaber's refusal to consider the two proposed sites in Cascade Locks, the 2,190 registered tribal voters will decide on the only two options available: along Highway 26 somewhere on the reservation, or on the 40-acre trust parcel just east of Hood River.
Leo said because of a worsening financial situation, the tribe can't afford to wait much longer for the development that will bring in between $4-$15 million per year, dependent upon location.
"The people of Cascade Locks have been gracious and wonderful to the tribe and if there is to be a Gorge casino it is too bad it can't be built in the community that also desperately needs the economic opportunities," said Leo.
Cascade Locks officials are equally frustrated by the loss of between 700-850 potential jobs in a rural city that is currently suffering from an estimated 15 percent unemployment rate -- with few local job prospects on the near horizon.
"I think if Gov. Kitzhaber looked at the available casino sites and really listened to the people then he would have to agree that the casino should be in Cascade Locks," said Freeborn.
In 1999 Kitzhaber vetoed a tribal proposal to build a casino on Government Rock, an island within the urban boundaries of Cascade Locks that had been purchased by the tribe that same year. At the time, Kitzhaber said he did not want to set a precedent for other tribes to be able to build on land acquired after the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. More recently, he has refused to consider tribal plans to site the casino within the Cascade Locks industrial park.
However, Freeborn and Robert Willoughby, Cascade Locks city manager, join Hood River county and city officials and members of the No-Casino group in the assertion that if there is to be a casino in the Gorge it should be built in a willing community. The Hood River-based entities have vowed to fight any development on the hill just east of the city.
Both Cascade Locks and Hood River officials also contend that Kitzhaber should change his mind to preserve the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Since the Hood River trust parcel lies within a protected forest zone, they believe it would be better to have the casino built within an urban center where major Scenic Area development is intended to occur.
Both Willoughby and Freeborn remain optimistic that, with enough public pressure, Kitzhaber will finally be forced to listen to his constituents. But they also believe that with the tribal vote pending, the time is growing short.
"Anyone who wants to see Kitzhaber change his mind is going to have to get onboard or they are going to find very soon that the train has left the station," he said.