La Center, tribe talks paying benefits

Sewer upgrades not possible without Cowlitz, officials say

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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Portrait

For more information on life in Clark County, visit www.columbian.com/portrait.

La Center

Population: 2,800.

Must see: La Center Bottoms wildlife site, Sternwheeler Park, cardrooms.

Website: http://www.ci.lacenter.wa.us.

La Center’s decision to open the lines of communication with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe could pay big dividends for the city as early as this year, most notably in the development of a three-mile sewer line.

The tribe’s casino project has been a source of division for years. Some see it a potential economic boon for the bedroom community of 2,800, which gets 81 percent of its general income from cardrooms. Others view it as a threat to the city’s well-being and cardrooms, and worry the casino’s interests will one day outweigh the city’s.

La Center’s council reopened talks with the Cowlitz tribe in March after their predecessors barred such discussions four years earlier. Within eight months, the city had annexed more than 450 acres of commercial and residential land to the Interstate 5 junction and agreed in principle on a proposed sewer agreement with the Cowlitz.

In December 2011, the council approved a 20-year, multimillion-dollar sewer agreement with the tribe that would extend the lines to the Interstate 5 junction and double the capacity of the city’s wastewater treatment facility.

The agreement is mutually beneficial, both sides said.

The city now has the means to build sewer lines to I-5, a project not possible without Cowlitz’s monetary aid. Residents will save money, because the city will have more sewer customers with the tribe coming online, city officials said.

Meanwhile, the tribe’s people and businesses will also receive much-needed sewer services. The tribe has around 3,700 members.

The sewer agreement is contingent on a federal court’s ruling on whether the tribe can use 152 acres of land to build a casino that could cost well in excess of $500 million. Clark County, La Center’s four cardrooms and several others filed a lawsuit seeking to block the casino.

Waiting for a federal court decision has become commonplace for all involved since a 2008 Supreme Court ruling placed the Cowlitz casino project in limbo. No timeline existed for when the federal court might rule on the county’s lawsuit, tribe Chairman Bill Iyall said in November.

La Center’s fate, at least for the time being, appears to be tied to the Cowlitz casino project. But the city, once a steam stop along the East Fork of the Lewis River, is attempting to build a commercial base along I-5, too.

La Center, founded in 1910, has found a niche as a cute, friendly bedroom town.

The city is quiet and happy, with some of Clark County’s lowest crime rates and property taxes. The city does not even have a stoplight, and there are no plans on the horizon to add one, city planner Dale Miller said.

Homeownership in La Center is more than 80 percent, officials said.

One of the La Center’s jewels, its wastewater treatment facility, greets visitors as they enter town. The city had $13 million worth of upgrades performed in the past two years. The upgraded facility will have its capacity to clean waste doubled once the Cowlitz get the go-ahead from the government to build their casino, city officials said.