Candidates talk casino, local economy

Serious debate was laced with political humor during a forum for Hood River County Commission candidates on Wednesday evening at Cascade Locks City Hall.

Rodger Schock, who is opposing John Arens for the at-large chair position, said he and Ladd Henderson, a contender for the District 1 seat currently held by Carol York, were both competing in the “Stealth Champion Campaign.” That comment was made after Schock and Henderson each declared that they were philosophically opposed to accepting campaign contributions and placing yard signs around the community. Henderson said that he had initiated the “invisible yard sign” strategy — any lawn that wasn’t already sporting an advertisement for another candidate really held one of his.

To which Cascade Locks City Councilor Gene Miller quipped, “How are you going to find your signs to pick them up?”

The four candidates were offered coffee and cookies by their hosts, the Columbia Gorge Lions Club, but were also served with hard questions by the 15-member audience. They were asked to take a stand on the Warm Springs desire to build a casino in Cascade Locks and explain their cure for Hood River County’s ailing economy.

Arens told the assemblage that he has been actively lobbying the governor and other state leaders to allow the casino to be constructed in Cascade Locks because it would serve as a “great catalyst for all kinds of opportunities.”

“I look at Cascade Locks as an uncut gem, you have something very special here,” said Arens.

York said that she had actually broached the idea of the tribe purchasing Government Rock in Cascade Lock for a casino site at a 1998 leadership conference. At that time she said a fight was shaping up over the proposed Hood River location and she had believed, then as now, that the “win-win” solution was to place it in a willing community.

“I’m not a casino-goer but I know a lot of people who find it to be a valid form of indoor entertainment and who am I to say what other people should do?” asked York.

In contrast, Henderson said that he was morally opposed to the increasing dependence of the state upon lottery and gambling proceeds to fund essential services. After visiting numerous cities within Oregon where casinos were sited, Henderson said it would be easy for any politician to support a gambling operation that was not in his/her own backyard but that the majority of towns where the facilities had been located were not prospering.

“If economic development was going to be the result of putting a casino in the community then should it not have shown up someplace,” said Henderson, who believes that only Lincoln City has seen a boom in business from the nearby Chinook Winds casino.

Schock said he had visited with gubernatorial candidate Ted Kolongoski, the Democratic front-runner, about the desire of the Cascade Locks community for the job opportunities created by a casino. He said state leaders also needed to be made aware of “complexities” brought by the addition of a large gaming center in a rural community and help mitigate the impact from increased traffic and rapid growth.

“If you folks decide that is what you want to do down here then I’ll support it,” he said.

All of the candidates agreed that Hood River County has a dire need for economic development to offset the high unemployment rate and limited job base.

Both Arens and Schock also were united in their belief that small to medium-sized businesses would be an ideal match for the rural county, although Arens was unopposed to larger commercial operations if they met strict design criteria such as compatibility.

“I would first like to promote the area to businesses that would supplement the agriculture and forestry industries but we need a diversified job base with wages at all levels,” said Arens.

However, Schock was adamantly against any “big box” retailer and said the proposed 185,000 square foot Wal-Mart super center, no matter how well built, did not belong in Hood River.

“It won’t fit, we’re trying to shove 10 pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack,” Schock said.

York contended that the best way to market the Gorge was to promote tourism since studies had shown that 70 percent of new businesses were established after the owner had visited a location that caught his/her interest.

“Tourism is not just trinkets and t-shirts, it leads to good solid economic development,” York said.

Henderson delivered blistering remarks about the regulatory roadblocks enacted by city and county officials that had made it hard to attract new businesses and industries.

“I don’t care how much money you spend, you can’t overcome the reputation of being one of the most difficult places in the state to build a business,” said Henderson. Schock again differed with Arens in his belief that orchardists should be left to work out marketing and foreign trade issues on their own.

Arens was in favor of having the local government take more of an active role as an advocate, a stand that was strongly shared by both York and Henderson.

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