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Counting on the casino

Facility would help Cascade Locks address emerging growth issues

November 2, 2005

Cascade Locks might have the largest block of available industrial land in the county – but most of it cannot be developed because of transportation constraints.

And, without a tribal gambling casino coming to town, Hood River County government agencies don’t have the money to resolve these problems.

“There are no other businesses who can afford to spend $20 million to alleviate our transportation challenges,” said Cascade Locks City Administrator Robert Willoughby.

His remarks were directed to 25 city, county and Port of Cascade Locks officials last Thursday. Willoughby was referencing the offer by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs to pay for a new interchange from Interstate 84 into the port’s industrial park.

Without that improvement, Willoughby said businesses were not attracted to the industrial lands at the western edge of the city. He said the existing at-grade railroad crossing is a major safety concern to most potential employers. In addition, there are traffic delays brought by 22 passing trains each day, decreasing the efficiency of shipments and deliveries.

Willoughby was not the only Cascade Locks official advocating for the casino during the 90- minute discussion on business and housing needs.

Port Director Chuck Daughtry said no other industry has stepped forward to provide the city with more economic benefits. He said the gaming center would bring 28 jobs per acre and an average annual salary to workers of $31,400. And that would decrease the high poverty rates in the community.

The median annual household income in Cascade Locks is $29,719, far below the average of $42,206 for the remainder of the county.

“From the port’s perspective, the casino is the ‘highest and best’ use of our land,” said Daughtry.

Both the Cascade Locks city and port expect to double their bottom line within the first year after the casino opens its doors. Officials contend that will free up funding for other infrastructure improvements – which could bring more jobs into the area.

For example, 42 acres of private industrial land off Gravel Pit Road cannot be fully utilized without a new bridge over the steep embankment of Herman Creek.

The hope that a casino will be sited on 25 acres in the industrial park — plus an additional 35 acres leased for parking — was woven through the Oct. 27 meeting. It was the second “brainstorming” session sponsored by Hood River County within the past two weeks. County leaders have been collaborating with other public entities to develop a strategy for more affordable housing and increased job opportunities.

The Warm Springs proposal, which still awaits federal approval, was factored into an inventory of industrial lands. Bill Fashing, the county’s economic development coordinator, did not include the 60 acres in his formal study. He decided to work around that site since it had been reserved for the project.

After months of research, Fashing concluded that Cascade Locks still had almost 69 acres of industrial land to use for other endeavors. However, he also determined that all of these parcels had some type of an impediment to development. And, since that scenario is playing out throughout the county, only 1.43 acres are actually “shovel ready” for business use.

He said, once that problem came to light, the county initiated conversations with the cities of Cascade Locks and Hood River about potential remedies.

“What we want to go after, generally speaking is some type of lighter industry. Not the traditional smokestacks that a lot of people associate with industrial projects,” said Fashing. “This is a long-term process, we’re not going to wake up tomorrow and have everything done.”

Michael Benedict, county planning director, praised Cascade Locks last week for addressing the affordable housing issue. The city has geared up for growth by creating 200 residential lots. In addition, Cascade Locks has 300 additional acres set aside for development. Recently, officials also maximized the available land by allowing dwellings to be constructed on smaller lots.

“Couple those smart ordinances with the amount of development interests you currently have and you might very well have gotten in front of the affordable housing curve,” said Benedict.

He cautioned that many lower-income residents could find it difficult to pay their property taxes if land values increased dramatically. Currently, the value of most homes in Cascade Locks is under $150,000. That compares with $229.921 within the City of Hood River and $190,486 in other outlying areas.

“It would appear that any serious rise in property values could have a significant impact on a large share of your citizens’ ability to pay their property taxes,” said Benedict.

Willoughby said the city has received a state planning grant of $200,000 to help design infrastructure improvements. In addition, he said the city owns three acres that could possibly be used for a senior housing project.

He said the price of land is still relatively inexpensive, compared to the rest of the county, but the cost is going up. Willoughby said the casino will only create the need for 151 new homes, since most of the 1,700 workers are expected to commute in from other locations.

He said the current housing demand in the western end of the Gorge is being driven by the rapidly growing population in the Portland-metro area. Willoughby said that demand has increased the sale prices of homes in three new subdivisions from $188,000-$350,000.

He said the population in Cascade Locks can only triple from the existing 1,115 residents because there is no urban growth area. The city is bordered by the Columbia River on the north and nationally protected lands in the three other directions.

“I think that people anticipate more impact on housing with the casino than I think we’re going to see,” said Willoughby. “The real impact is that we are 30 minutes closer than Hood River to the largest employment base in the state of Oregon. And I think that is influencing our housing more than anything else could.”

He said the “worst thing” that could happen to Cascade Locks would be to experience residential growth that was not supported by a healthy business base.

The American Farmland Trust has tabulated that for every $1 in tax dollars paid by a property owner, another 17 cents is needed to subsidize water, sewer and other services. Conversely, an industry will use only about 27 cents of every dollar it pays in taxes.

Willoughby told Benedict, Fashing and other county officials that Cascade Locks did not need direct help with future planning. However, he asked that the rural city be considered during business recruitment efforts, and that successful strategies implemented to attract new firms be shared with Cascade Locks.

“If there is something working somewhere else that would also work here, we’d be happy to talk about it,” he said.

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