By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
The downtown street of Cascade Locks was largely deserted on Thursday morning — some of the welcome banners posted for Gov. Ted Kulongoski still flapping in a light spring breeze.
It seemed a ghost town compared to the WaNaPa Street crowded last week with television crews and both state and county officials. The flurry of activity around the visit by Oregon’s governor was gone — replaced by a quiet realization that life in the small town was about to change.
On April 6 the citizens of Cascade Locks learned that Kulongoski had given his approval for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to build a casino in their industrial park. The proposed $300 million project at the eastern edge of town includes a 500,000 square foot structure on 25 acres, accompanied by a 39-acre parking lot.
Doug Shockley, who manages River’s Edge Towing out of the town’s Chevron station, said tourists have already stopped to ask for directions to the new gaming center. Although the facility is not expected to open for almost three years — if it is signed off at the federal level — he sees the early interest as a good sign.
“I know there are a lot of people who feel it will bring crime but it will mostly bring jobs and the growth that we need,” he said. “I think that will be good for the school and wake up this sleepy town.”
Most of the business owners along WaNaPa Street are awaiting the “jump-start” to the local economy brought by the casino. They have been struggling financially for years as more and more elderly residents move to cities that provide medical and banking services — neither of which are available in Cascade Locks.
“I felt a little relief when the governor made the announcement last week because I know as soon as the construction phase starts I’m going to pick up volume. And, also, the housing market is going to take a turn for the better because we’ll have more families moving into town,” said Gary Dallas, owner of Columbia Market.
But not all of the citizens in Cascade Locks are happy about having the primary economic engine of their city be related to gambling. Their objections range from the potential for addiction that will destroy many families and drive up the local crime rate, to the precedent that Kulongoski has set for the future with other tribes.
“I don’t think it will be here. I think it would be stupid for the government to allow it because then all of the other tribes will be trying to get off-reservation casinos,” said resident Denny Jones. “I think the governor signed that paper (compact) because it was safe, he knew that it wouldn’t be approved.”
The local opposition group, Cascade Locks No Casino, has posted a Web site, www.cl-nocasino.org, and is urging opponents to join their fight.
“Cascade Locks No Casino does not believe that this signals the casino is a done deal. The federal approval process has not yet begun, and we will not back down from the fight to preserve the integrity of our community and the Columbia River Gorge,” stated a press release from the group following Kulongoski’s visit.
The Warm Springs anticipate that Interior Secretary Gale Norton will render a decision either for or against the casino within the next year. Then, once the 25-acre parcel in the Port of Cascade Locks’ industrial park has been converted into trust land, the one-year construction phase on the gigantic project will begin.
But that seems a long way off for the city along the Columbia River that has been struggling for years to recover from a lost timber economy. Whether they agree or disagree that the casino is the right venue to “jump-start” the area’s business base, they all acknowledge that it is time for a positive change.