Casino debate escalates to federal level

September 21, 2005

The fight over a proposed tribal gambling casino in Cascade Locks is now being waged at the federal level.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs plan was signed off in April by local officials and Gov. Ted Kulongoski. The request to construct a 500,000 square foot resort/casino in the city’s industrial park is under review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). And both proponents and opponents are lining up at public meetings to get their viewpoint entered into the official record.

Last week, the BIA held the first of five open house programs to provide citizens with an opportunity for comment. Tonight, the fourth forum will take place from 6-8:30 p.m. in the Gorge Room of the Best Western Hood River Inn. A final session is scheduled from 6-8:30 p.m. next Wednesday at Rock Creek Center in Stevenson, Wash. Two previous meetings have already been held in Cascade Locks and one in Portland.

Cascade Locks City Administrator Robert Willoughby hopes the BIA and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who must approve the project, will understand the “desperate” economic need of his community. He said the downtown business base of the city of about 1,100 residents has already shrunk from 90 enterprises in 1955 to less than 20 today. And many aging senior citizens are leaving because there is no assisted living facility, bank or medical facilities available.

“The casino would be tourism with a roof that would make other ‘pioneers’ willing to come here and take a business risk because of the potential for success,” said Willoughby. “The positives of this project far outweigh any negatives, and those can all be mitigated.”

According to statistics provided by Andersen Construction, chosen to erect the casino, the project will likely generate more than two million labor hours. That would mean a payroll of nearly $124 million over a two-year period.

When complete, the casino in Cascade Locks is expected to create 1,700 permanent, full-time jobs that pay an average annual salary of about $31,000. Willoughby anticipates that additional tourism-driven jobs will also be created by the casino.

“The worst case scenario for us would be to have only residential growth, which costs more to maintain than the tax dollars it brings in,” said Willoughby. “We need the casino because it will bring in other commercial and industrial growth that can pay the bills.”

Norton is expected to give her yea or nay to the Warm Springs plan by mid-2006. If she okays the proposal, the tribe anticipates opening the doors to 90,000 square feet of gaming space, multiple restaurants and a 250-room hotel and conference center by the summer of 2008.

But not if the Coalition for Oregon’s Future (COF) – partly funded by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde – wins its arguments. The coalition contends the casino will violate the natural resource protections of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. That argument is based on a projected increase in the annual Scenic Area visitor count from two million to three million. According to COF, an increase in tourism will bring more air pollution and traffic congestion through the environmentally-sensitive corridor.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a COF founder, has suggested the Warm Springs erect a casino along Highway 26 on reservation land near Madras. In fact, Friends has suggested that a visitor count be studied for that location. The Warm Springs wants to close the doors to its Kah-Nee-Ta casino, always meant as a temporary facility, in favor of the Gorge facility because the revenue is expected to increase significantly from an annual intake of $4 million.

The tribe does not view the suggestion by Friends as a viable alternative because of bad weather in the winter and its remote location. That choice has already been voted down by tribal members, who favored a return to the Gorge where the Warm Springs maintain hunting and fishing rights.

Friends also believes that a public hearing should be held by the BIA on the Gorge casino issue since the group does not believe that the trust land just east of Hood River is eligible as an alternative site. Michael Lang, Friends’ conservation director, said all of the arguments need to be fully explored in an open process before any decision is made.

“We believe there should be a public hearing. We think everyone should be able to stand up and address the public with their concerns. This (open house) is more about crowd control,” said Lang.

June Boynton, BIA regional environment protection specialist, said all comments submitted by the citizens until Oct. 15 (see story, A1) will be incorporated into a special report. That scoping document will describe significant technical issues that need to be addressed in the official Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

“This is not a debate, it’s not a public referendum. We are here to gather issues and listen to alternatives,” she said at the first open house in Cascade Locks on Sept. 14.

She said all input, whether given in person or via other means, would help determine the depth of analysis that would be required from the EIS. The federal government is seeking to determine the cultural, social, traffic, socioeconomic, and environmental plus or minuses of the Warm Springs plan.

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