Casino "dream" likely coming to an end

January 4, 2012

As 2011 dawned, supporters of a proposed Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs casino in Cascade Locks were cautiously optimistic the project would take a big leap forward.

The project's environmental impact assessment had received de facto approval from the federal Department of the Interior and was awaiting the approval of a two-part determination by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, which then Gov. Ted Kulongoski had said he would sign if it came across his desk before he left office.

Instead, in the opening days of the year, Salazar announced he was commencing a review of all two-part determinations and would not be releasing any determinations until spring. Spring stretched into summer, summer into fall and fall into winter, and it appeared no decision was forthcoming from Washington.

When John Kitzhaber took office later in January, hope for getting the casino approved in the near future quickly withered.

Kitzhaber stated his opposition repeatedly during his campaign, and received large campaign donations from the Grand Ronde Tribe, which operates Spirit Mountain Casino, the closest to the Portland Metro area, and opposes a casino in Cascade Locks, a 45-minute drive from Portland.

Now a project which started with much fanfare nearly a decade ago may be quietly dying for good.

At a Port Commission meeting two weeks ago, the Port of Cascade Locks declined to take action on an amendment to the port's contract with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which would have extended the deadline to renew an option agreement over land the tribes wanted to purchase for a casino.

The amendment would have extended the option to April and allowed the Tribes to hold an option on a smaller portion of land, while allowing the port to put the rest back on the market.

With no action taken on the amendment the option will expire Jan. 5, unless the Tribes choose to execute their half of the option on the land and pay the remainder of the balance to purchase the land, which would be in excess of $1 million.

According to the port, all indications from the Tribes point to them not doing that. In the spring the Tribes announced construction of what the Warm Springs called a temporary casino at Indian Head off Highway 26.

Even after it became apparent that Kitzhaber would not approve the casino in Cascade Locks, and the two-part determination was dragging on, Warm Springs still insist that the Indian Head Casino is a temporary measure.

"It is a temporary casino on 26," said Warm Springs Government Affairs Director Louis Pitt. "The big goal is a casino in the Gorge."

The Indian Head Casino is scheduled to open later this month.

Pitt added that the Tribes are willing to be patient to get to their goal, even if it means waiting out the remainder of Kitzhaber's term or another after that.

"We're not giving up," Pitt said. "We're patient and we're not going anywhere."

However in testimony before the Port Commission at a special session called just before the New Year to allow the Tribes and the public the opportunity to weigh in, Warm Springs Chairman Ron Suppah acknowledged that it may be a long process, saying that the Tribes had requested the federal government put their application on hold while they attempted to get the governor to change his mind - efforts which Suppah said had been fruitless so far.

"When the election happened we felt it would be best to put this on the back burner until we could meet with Gov. Kitzhaber," Suppah said in his testimony. "To date, that has not happened - he is always telling us he is super-busy with the state budget."

While the Tribes may be willing to wait however long is necessary, patience appears to be running out in Cascade Locks.

"We just see the casino as being a whole different project than what was initially presented," said Port chairman Jess Groves. "We are still looking at another 10 years before it would be built."

Even if the casino were to pass muster in the federal government and get final approval from the governor's office, there would likely be lawsuits from environmental groups which would delay the process further, and Groves and fellow port commission members said the priority needs to shift toward allowing the port to market all its available land toward getting jobs into Cascade Locks, and getting them quickly.

"This has been a special relationship and this has been a very difficult decision to come to," said commissioner Joleene Caldwell during last week's meeting. "We have so much invested into this … and in that time we have lost a high school and a junior high ... if we lost anything else our community could turn into a ghost town."

When the project began more than a decade ago, the hope was that the casino would bring an influx of jobs, tourism dollars and needed revenue to town services and the school.

While the Tribes have paid the port approximately $5,000 every month for the right to hold the option on the industrial zoned land - to the tune of around $800,000 so far - the land remains empty with no tenants able to come in while the land is reserved.

"We need to have a direction with the industrial park," said Port General Manager Chuck Daughtry. "It needs to be industrial or resort/commercial ... this does provide us with some clarity."

During the public comment period at last Thursday's meeting, reaction was mixed. Numerous speakers felt the port was turning its back on the Tribes, and treating a valued business partner unfairly.

"We need to continue to cultivate our options and we should not be ending things with a partner which has been good to us for a number of years," said former Cascade Locks mayor Brad Lorang during his turn at the microphone.

Others said that after waiting for more than a decade for the casino to come to fruition, that it was time to move on.

"I believe it has gotten to point where this has dragged on for too long," said former port commissioner Scott Sullenger.

Daughtry said that nothing is prohibiting the Tribes and the port from reaching a new agreement in the future; perhaps for a smaller segment of land or one that could work around the possibility of other business coming in. The Tribes' current agreement with the state regarding the Highway 26 casino leaves open the option of closing the casino if one should ever be opened in Cascade Locks.

While Groves expressed a desire to continue a working relationship with the Tribes and acknowledged that a window may open again in the future, he said the door is closing on the original agreement between the port and Warm Springs.

"This is not our fault and it's not their fault," he said. "The dream is just coming to an end."

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