The revelation late Thursday afternoon that the federal government has removed a major hurdle blocking the Cowlitz Tribe from constructing a casino complex near La Center caught officials and opponents of the plan off guard.
La Center Councilwoman Linda Tracy said she was saddened and disappointed by the news.
“It is going to pretty much devastate La Center, easily, because we don’t and can’t offer what a tribal casino can,” she said.
The decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow the tribe to establish a reservation on 152 acres of land along Interstate 5 west of La Center drew criticism from activists and officials who had opposed the measure. It was welcomed by a union official as a source of good construction jobs and spark for economic development.
As proposed, the casino would include a gas station, event center, hotel, restaurants and shopping. Tracy predicted that Clark County residents will head there for entertainment and goods because prices will be lower than at non-tribal establishments, and the county will also lose money because the land will be taken off the tax rolls.
La Center relies heavily on the success of its four non-tribal cardrooms to fund city services. Taxes from cardrooms make up about $3 million of the city’s $4 million general fund revenue. The city is working to annex land to stretch city limits west to Interstate 5 to allow for industrial development along the I-5 corridor and help the city to diversify its tax base.
“I’m going to just be hopeful by the time it happens that La Center will be in a better position to keep the community going as it has for years,” Tracy said.
‘Oh my gosh’
When anti-casino group spokesman Tom Hunt was reached Thursday afternoon with the news, his first words were: “Oh my gosh.”
Hunt’s group, Citizens Against Reservation Shopping, has opposed the proposed location of the Cowlitz Tribe’s complex since at least 2005. He said the federal government is running “roughshod” over the anti-casino resolutions passed by Clark County, Vancouver, La Center, Ridgefield and Woodland.
“There will be protracted battles here. This is shocking,” said Hunt, who said he is unsure of his group’s next move, “but we’re certainly going to fight it in one way or another.”
State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, has been a staunch critic of the proposed casino, as have several past and current 18th District legislators. But he doubts they have much say going forward, since the issue rests with federal officials.
Thursday’s ruling did not come as good news, he said.
“I think it’s a huge mistake. It’s absolutely unnecessary,” Orcutt said. “The Cowlitz tribe, as a whole, is not an impoverished tribe. They’ve never been a reservation tribe, therefore, there’s no reason for them to have the land.
“They’re certainly not in need of more money,” he said.
Union sees benefit
Reaction wasn’t all negative. Local trade groups have generally supported the prospect of a major new construction project.
The tribe estimates the $510 million casino-hotel complex will generate 4,400 construction jobs over two years.
“I think its great,” said Ed Barnes, former longtime president of the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council. “We got over 13 percent unemployment here, and nobody else is creating jobs. This should have been started two years ago.”
Roben White, with the International Union of Painters & Allied Trades in Vancouver, said he envisions short-term and long-term benefits both to the Cowlitz Tribe and to the surrounding county based on the track record of other tribal casinos.
“The tribes have proven that, given just a small amount of an economic base, they’ve developed some pretty good businesses for themselves,” he said. “I don’t think gambling as a whole is going to last forever in this country or the state. However, it gives them the chance to build up their economic base.”
Criticism from La Center city officials and the cardrooms is to be expected, White said.
“I couldn’t help but think it was because they had existing gambling businesses and didn’t want to have somebody else getting part of their pie,” White said.
La Center Mayor Jim Irish said he, the city council and staff will need to determine how to move forward and what, if any, action the city should take.
Public opinion on the contentious topic remains split. A scientific poll commissioned in 2005 by The Columbian found a slim 51 percent majority of Clark County residents support the Cowlitz Tribe’s plans. But during a 2007 Vancouver City Council meeting on an anti-casino resolution, pro-casino speakers outweighed the opposition by more than 3 to 1.
Vancouver unanimously passed a resolution against the tribe’s location near La Center anyway, citing concerns about the social ills of gambling and what it saw as deficiencies with the casino’s environmental impact statement. The city has no power over the tribe’s plans, but it had hoped a public stance would influence federal officials who do.
Vancouver Mayor Pro-Tem Larry Smith, who was on the council for its 2007 vote, said the group will reconvene for another discussion regarding the casino.
“When we do 2007 vs. 2011, the lay of the land is entirely different because the recession, economy, jobs and a lot of that may play into that,” Smith said. “Just like other communities, we’re looking to create jobs and other opportunities to be successful.”
Columbian reporters Howard Buck and Erik Robinson contributed to this story.