Saturation not a concern, gambling proponents say

More cardrooms may crop up in Woodland but most cities opposed

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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In 2011, Washington’s 61 cardrooms employed 5,413 people and paid $22.8 million in local taxes, according to the Washington State Gambling Commission.

Two months after the Oak Tree Casino opened, rumors continue to swirl about as many as three more cardrooms going live in Woodland this year, city officials said.

Such developments, if they occurred, would give Woodland as many cardrooms as La Center — four.

The prospect of eight cardrooms less than 10 miles apart — not to mention a proposed tribal casino off Interstate 5 in La Center — has some observers asking when more gambling outlets would result in dwindling returns for the cities they call home.

“At some point, you reach a saturation point,” said Mark Stephan, a political science professor at Washington State University Vancouver.

Cardroom officials are not worried about a saturation point. Not yet, at least. There are enough pieces of the multimillion-dollar pie to go around, they said.

“(I)n general economic terms, I don’t think gaming is any different than any other industry,” said John Bockmier, a Vancouver-based consultant for La Center’s four cardrooms, which brought in $31.3 million in gross receipts in the fiscal year ending in June 2011. “There is competition between other like businesses for discretionary dollars.”

Talks of more cardrooms in and around Clark County run contrary to the statewide trend.

In 2011, Washington’s 61 cardrooms employed 5,413 employees and paid $22.8 million in local taxes, according to the Washington State Gambling Commission. Those numbers were far below the 2005 peak, when 97 cardrooms employed 6,972 workers and paid $32 million in local taxes.

The decline can be attributed to two factors — a smoking ban passed in 2005 and the appearance of electronic gaming devices at tribal casinos, said Dolores Chiechi, executive director of the Recreational Gaming Association. Cardrooms cannot have electronic gaming devices.

Clark County cardrooms have one advantage — the nearest Washington tribal casinos, the Lucky Eagle in Rochester and Red Wind in Lacey, are more than an hour’s drive from both La Center and Woodland.

Woodland

Oak Tree Casino general manager Chuck McCormick laughs at suggestions Woodland could one day become inundated with cardrooms. There are not enough available commercially-zoned spots in the city, he said. He is not opposed to more cardrooms, though.

“Competition is good,” McCormick said.

For a cash-strapped city such as Woodland, cards and chips on a gaming table can equal new police units and fire trucks on the streets.

Envisioning these same cards and chips as new employees paid an annual salary is where Woodland councilman Benjamin Fredricks draws the line.

Casino officials forecasted the Oak Tree Casino and an as-yet-unopened cardroom annex behind Parr Lumber would generate $292,000 in tax revenue toward the city’s public safety needs this year.

The potential for projection downgrades is one of the reasons Fredricks favors using the money on items such as police cars or fire trucks rather than “recurring expenditures” like staff salaries.

Cardrooms’ benefits do not stop at tax revenue, Fredricks said.

The Oak Tree Casino has created jobs amid a difficult economic climate. Officials estimate around 250 jobs will have been created, once the cardroom annex opens this year.

The cardroom has also provided adults recreational opportunities — the 2,000-square-foot River Lounge bar has live music up to five nights per week.

“Otherwise, they will take their dollars to La Center or Portland for a club,” Fredricks said.

Not everyone in Woodland shares Fredricks’ views that adults should spend their income on gambling in Woodland.

“I think one cardroom in the community is one too many,” former Mayor Chuck Blum said, adding the council’s support for cardrooms made his position moot.

Blum is not alone.

Woodland councilman Marshall Allen has vowed to start a petition this spring that would bring the legality of cardrooms before a citywide vote. He worries the detriment the cardrooms bring, particularly to families with a father who suffers from gambling addiction, will outweigh their benefits.

‘Greed overtakes fear’

Don’t expect cardrooms to come to your community if you live outside Woodland or La Center, Clark County elected officials said.

Other cities across the county have laws banning cardrooms. Both ideological and economic reasons make the possibility of cardrooms in these cities remote.

“I do not believe cardrooms are reflective of the community values in Camas,” Mayor Scott Higgins said following a meeting last week with Washougal Mayor Sean Guard at Washougal City Hall. Camas has better economic growth opportunities, Higgins added.

East county neighbor Washougal also has no interest in cardrooms.

“Even if they were done to the highest degree and were entertainment meccas and brought in (a large) tax base, I would have to think we could find other ways to do things,” Guard said.

Money shortages are driving the cardroom push, they agreed.

“It’s interesting: The more acceptable (gambling became), the tighter finances got,” Higgins said.

“Greed overtakes fear,” Guard concluded.

Insinuations that cardrooms are morally wrong or greed-based get Bockmier and his clients fired up.

“They’ve been here for 20 years, and they’re still dealing with those connotations,” Bockmier said.

Vancouver and Ridgefield officials share similar sentiments about cardrooms as their peers in Camas and Washougal. Vancouver was once home to cardrooms, but they were banned in the mid-1980s.

Elsewhere in Clark County, Battle Ground’s conservative leanings make it unlikely residents would be receptive of cardrooms, Mayor Lisa Walters said.

“I would hate it if cardrooms came to Battle Ground,” she said. “Let’s let Woodland and La Center be the cardroom meccas of Clark County.”

Here to stay

On-site gambling is here to stay in Clark County — at least for the foreseeable future. Where people gamble and how they do so — whether playing poker at a table or pulling a slot machine’s lever at a tribal casino — remains a question to be answered in time.

La Center, a bedroom community of 2,800, receives 81 percent of its revenue from cardrooms, city officials said. Over the past decade, the city has received an average of $3.1 million per year combined in taxes from The Palace, The Last Frontier, The New Phoenix and Chips Casino, according to the Washington State Gambling Commission.

That does not figure to change much in the next few years — unless a federal court rules in the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s favor in a lawsuit filed by Clark County and others, seeking to block them from using 152 acres of federal land for a casino.

Gauging the casino’s likelihood of opening is not unlike gauging whether four cardrooms will open in Woodland by year’s end.

No new licenses issued

As of this week, no other Woodland businesses besides the Oak Tree Casino had filed for a license with the state, said Susan Arland with the Washington State Gambling Commission.

It is also possible the Woodland council’s views on cardrooms could shift.

“If the council changes to an ultra-conservative council, cardrooms could be removed from Woodland by a 4-3 vote,” Fredricks noted, emphasizing this potential makes opening them a dicey proposition.

Some would cheer such a vote.

For her part, Walters wondered aloud why people didn’t just travel to the other Clark County — the one in Nevada — to get their gambling fix.

“Whatever happened to the notion of going to Vegas?” she asked.

Ray Legendre: 360-73-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.