La Center mulls future as casino hangs in limbo

Economic diversification key feature of growth plans

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 

La Center

Population: 2,985

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

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

photoClick to enlarge

As La Center’s city leaders look toward the future, they continue to see visions of a more diversified tax base just off in the horizon.

The quaint bedroom community, nestled among a waterlogged forest in northern Clark County, relies on its four cardrooms for the majority of its tax base. The gambling establishments pump about $3 million a year into the city’s tax rolls, totaling about 80 percent of the city’s overall tax haul.

But in the future, the city has its eyes on a parcel of land near the junction of Interstate 5 and La Center Road, just west of the city limits -- an area where the Cowlitz Indian Tribe wants to build a 152-acre casino.

In September 2011, the city annexed land up to the Cowlitz reservation, including the I-5 right of way. The city claims the land will be used for economic diversification. The casino is the cornerstone of those plans.

Years of legal wrangling have kept the land undeveloped, however.

In December 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave the Cowlitz Tribe the OK to build a $510 million casino-hotel complex on a reservation near La Center.

The city’s nontribal cardroom owners, feeling pressure from the potential competition, vowed to fight the ruling. So did the Grand Ronde Tribe, which runs Oregon’s Spirit Mountain Casino, the closest casino to Portland.

Although La Center initially opposed the casino, it has since come around to supporting it.

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

At the time, the city and the tribe considered the deal to be a mutually beneficial one. La Center would be able to build its sewer line at a reduced price, while the Cowlitz tribe, with its 3,700 members, would receive much-needed sewer service.

Indeed, the wastewater treatment plant remains one of the city’s jewels. A couple of years ago, the city performed $13 million worth of upgrades to the facility. The upgrades are intended to double its capacity.

What this all means for La Center is the possibility to hit it big. But those plans remain hung up in federal court, where a lawsuit filed by Clark County against the U.S. Department of the Interior is attempting to block the casino’s development.

Mayor Jim Irish views economic diversification --whether through the development of a new casino or through other means -- as a sort of panacea for the city.

For one thing, development has slowed in the city, along with the economy.

The city has seen between 10 and 15 building permits issued annually over the last five years, meaning less revenue for the city from construction fees.

“Housing starts have declined,” Irish said, “but we’re still growing.”

With eyes directed toward the future, the city nonetheless keeps a focus on its traditional events as well.

Throughout the year, the city hosts a number of community events, including movie nights in Sternwheeler Park, the annual Our Days Festival and the Christmas festival and tree lighting.

The city estimates that 3,540 people showed up to the Christmas festival in 2012, one of its largest turnouts.

Said Irish: “The whole community is involved.”