Document sheds light on casino approval

Feds predict complex will employ 3,151 at $28,000 average pay

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Record of Decision issued by Assistant Secretary of Bureau of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk addresses wide-ranging concerns raised by groups opposing the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s request to establish a reservation and $510 million casino-hotel complex in Clark County.

When Echo Hawk announced Dec. 23 he had approved the request, the news came in a two-page press release.

Document

BIA Record of Decision on Cowlitz Reservation

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The 118-page Record of Decision, obtained Thursday by The Columbian, sheds light on the steps the BIA went through in evaluating the proposal and considering the claims made by the opposition.

Those claims ranged from environmental and infrastructure concerns to opposition from Oregon’s Grand Ronde Tribe, which operates Spirit Mountain Casino and draws players from the Vancouver-Portland area.

Echo Hawk’s decision includes projections on how many jobs would be created by the Cowlitz project.

The projection includes approximately 4,011 jobs over the entire construction period, with an average annual wage of $46,200. At completion, the hotel and casino is projected to have 3,151 employees with an average wage of $28,000.

Approximately 90 percent of the employees are expected to live in Clark and Cowlitz counties, according to the decision.

There remains plenty of questions about the project, including the potential for legal challenges and when financing could be secured. The Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which has partnered with developer and tribal member David Barnett, reported $2 billion in total debt in its year-end filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Barnett did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

William Iyall, chairman of the Cowlitz Tribe, has said it could take two years before construction would start. He said the project would be built in phases, starting with the casino.

In Echo Hawk’s decision, the casino is described as two-story building that would have 134,150 square feet of gaming floor.

Scott Bailey, regional economist, weighed in Thursday on the projected wages.

He said in 2009, the average annual wage in Clark County was $41,150.

Retail jobs averaged $26,434, jobs in accommodations averaged $21,750 and food service jobs averaged $14,884 (tips and benefits not included.)

The average work week at full-service restaurants is less than 24 hours, Bailey said.

Many of the casino’s operational jobs would be considered low-wage, Bailey said, and many will be part-time.

He said the median hourly wage statewide at all gambling establishments was $14.55, meaning half the jobs pay below that amount.

The median hourly wage for all jobs in Clark County was $19.20.

Bailey said the impact of the jobs created by the casino is overstated, because the casino would divert spending at other local businesses.

People would have to decide where to spend their entertainment dollars, Bailey said.

In the decision, Echo Hawk addressed each comment received by the BIA.

The Grand Ronde asked the BIA to consider the potential loss of customers to Spirit Mountain, approximately a 90-minute drive from Portland.

“Grand Ronde essentially is asking for protection from additional business competition for its Spirit Mountain Casino,” Echo Hawk wrote.

Even taking into consideration a loss of customers, Spirit Mountain, which reported $131 million annual income in its statement to the BIA, would still earn enough to cover the cost of tribal government operations, Echo Hawk wrote.

“Moreover, the BIA policies of promoting tribal self-determination, self-governance and economic self-sufficiency, do not require that BIA ensure the competitive advantage of one tribe to the exclusion of providing another tribe with similar opportunities for economic development and self-determination.”

Cardroom concerns

Echo Hawk also addressed the impact the casino would have on local jurisdictions.

The city of La Center submitted an estimate that the casino would result in a 66 percent loss in cardroom revenues, most recently estimated to make up $3 million of the city’s $4 million general fund revenues.

But since the city refused to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with the tribe, Echo Hawk said he didn’t have to consider the impact on La Center’s gambling tax revenues.

“It is important to note that neither the BIA nor the Cowlitz Tribe have the ability to make the City of La Center accept any mitigation or enter into any mitigation MOU, as borne out by the fact that La Center declined to accept the tribe’s most recent mitigation offer,” Echo Hawk wrote.

La Center Mayor Jim Irish said he read the Record of Decision but hasn’t had an opportunity do an in-depth review of the document.

Irish said he and city attorney Dan Kearns plan to sit down and discuss the document soon.

Kearns will review the record of decision with the city council in an open meeting on Jan. 19.

The council, mayor and attorney will then retreat into executive session to discuss how the city plans to move forward and any potential action the city council wants to take, Irish said.

One major issue addressed at length in Echo Hawk’s decision is the tribe’s status.

One factor thought to be a potential complication for the tribe, which filed its trust application in 2002, was a subsequent Supreme Court decision blocking tribes not under federal jurisdiction prior to 1934 from taking land into trust. The Cowlitz Tribe was federally recognized in 2000.

According to Echo Hawk, the Cowlitz Tribe’s application to have the Clark County land placed into trust was filed under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

Echo Hawk concluded that the tribe was under federal jurisdiction from at least 1855, and there’s no clear evidence the federal government ever terminated the tribe’s jurisdictional status.

“For purposes of our decision here, I need not reach the question of the precise meaning of ‘recognized Indian tribe’ as used in the (Indian Reorganization Act), nor need I ascertain whether the Cowlitz Tribe was recognized by the federal government in the formal sense in 1934, in order to determine whether land may be acquired in trust for the Cowlitz Tribe,” Echo Hawk wrote.

He said the tribe’s need for a reservation is “dire” because it currently has no land in trust.

“As a consequence of the United States’ historical failure to enter into a treaty with the Cowlitz, and its subsequent opening of Cowlitz lands to non-Indian settlement without compensation, the tribe lost its lands and became dispersed,” Echo Hawk wrote.

Marissa Harshman contributed to this story.