Wednesday, November 6
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has opened his office for discussion of a tribal gambling casino in Cascade Locks.
And that news released by Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, on Monday has Hood River, Cascade Locks and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs officials “hopeful” about reaching a settlement over the controversial project.
“I think the unified voice of the Warm Springs and communities in the Gorge has been very helpful and should continue to be heard until this issue is decided,” said Rudy Clements, chairman of the Kah-Nee-Tah High Desert Resort and Casino board of directors.
“We’re prepared to move forward as soon as it can happen and the sooner the better from our perspective,” said Cascade Locks City Manager Robert Willoughby.
Hood River County Commissioner Carol York said, “I know that the new governor will have Oregon’s budget at the top of his priority list in the immediate future but, hopefully, he will find time to address the casino issue because it needs to go into a community that is receptive to having it there.”
In a letter dated Oct. 18, 2002, Kitzhaber notified Sen. Metsger that, while he was still personally opposed to an off-reservation casino, he would respect the “wishes” of his successor and help negotiate that plan if requested.
“Should the governor-elect indicate to me that he intends to authorize the Warm Springs casino in Cascade Locks, then I will facilitate the process during the remaining two months of my term,” wrote Kitzhaber.
As of press time on Tuesday, it was not yet known whether the gubernatorial race would be taken by Democrat Ted Kulongoski or Republican Kevin Mannix. Both candidates have indicated that they would favor Cascade Locks for the facility primarily because the community was open to the development. (Metsger is himself challenged in the election by Republican Bob Montgomery of Cascade Locks.)
Mannix and Kulongoski both were adamant that the casino should not be built on the 40-acre trust parcel east of Hood River that had drawn strong opposition from citizen activists and local government leaders.
Although Metsger was excited to pass on Kitzhaber’s new stand, he waited to publicize the letter until hours before the election to avoid criticism that he was using it for political gain in his re-election bid.
“I would hope that sometime within the next week these discussions can begin and that will foreclose concerns over having the casino in Hood River,” said Metsger.
During the past year, Metsger has personally met with Kitzhaber several times to persuade him that Cascade Locks was the better choice for a casino. He was joined by other local lobby efforts in the belief there were two central arguments to support the case for Cascade Locks:
The 40-acre trust parcel on the steep slope east of Hood River lies within the Scenic Area and protection of the “national treasure” would justify an exception. Building within the industrial park, already partly zoned for a resort, would uphold the federal law to encourage development in urban centers that are exempt from special protection guidelines.
The Warm Springs holds the “unique” position of being one of two treaty tribes in Oregon and owned the Cascade Locks parcel for thousands of years, making it a tribal cultural and spiritual heritage site.
“As a development that caters to tourism, a casino embraces the environment of natural wonders in the Gorge and doesn’t deplete them,” said Greg Leo, tribal spokesman.
Metsger said he understands Kitzhaber’s reluctance to set a precedent for other tribes to build on lands acquired after passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. However, he believes that the two listed arguments are strong enough to allow an exception to the rule.
“That the trust land lies within a National Scenic Area is in itself a compelling reason to allow for a mitigation that is a trade off,” said Metsger.
Cascade Locks officials are “excited” about the possibility of drawing more family wage jobs into the economically-distressed city — and tribal help to save the high school from closing due to school district budget cuts.
“The casino gives both the Warm Springs and Cascade Locks communities what they need in terms of economic development and creates an anchor for other tourism-related opportunities,” Leo said.
He said the construction phase will provide about 200 jobs and the employee base when the operation is up and running will be about 1,000 workers. That influx of people, said Leo, will raise valuations in the rural city and increase the size of the student body, drawing more tax revenue from both the county and state.
Clement said tribal members will also enter into community discussions about how to retain upper level classes so all children in Cascade Locks are guaranteed an “excellent” hometown education. In fact, Clements said the tribe wants to build a strong “partnership” with Hood River County by working with local farmers to create value-added products that could be marketed either directly at the casino or under the federally-protected tribal rights.