Despite a legal challenge hanging over their heads, leaders of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe say they’re moving toward starting construction on a new casino-resort near La Center this year.
Last week, Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall signed a labor agreement for the project with the Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council. The deal ensures that the council will be responsible for all site preparation and construction on the resort.
“The most important thing is that it hits home with the local workers who might be looking for employment through their union,” Iyall said. “I think there’s a substantial need in that area.”
Designs for the tribe’s property — just west of Exit 16 off of Interstate 5 — haven’t been finalized. At this point, the tribe envisions building a casino up to 134,000 square feet with shopping and retail space nearby and a hotel with as many as 250 rooms. Iyall expects the project could provide jobs for about 3,000 construction workers. But financing and construction have been held up in the court system by challenges from several local entities.
A deal between the tribe and Columbia Pacific has been in the works for quite some time, but the agreement makes it official, signifying a hope to begin building soon, Iyall said.
“We’re reinstating an agreement that was made long ago,” he said. “We want to formalize this so we’re ready to move on with construction.”
Tribal leaders are working through final stages of negotiation on a contract with an architect, who will put together the design for the property. Iyall expects to finalize the contract in the next four weeks.
“The hope is that sometime near the end of the year, we could start moving some dirt,” he said. “We’re going to try to get it (done) as quick as possible.” Iyall estimates construction could take up to two years.
The tribe announced the deal with Columbia Pacific on Monday, a little more than a month after Stanley Speaks, the regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, signed documents immediately establishing a Cowlitz reservation. Though the tribe has been around for many years, its leaders have long been looking for a home.
The federal government officially recognized the tribe in 2000, and in 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved an application to take 152 acres of land into trust for a new Cowlitz reservation. The property is just a short drive from La Center’s three non-tribal cardrooms.
A number of local groups have spent years fighting to stop the tribe from building the casino. They filed a lawsuit against the Cowlitz about five years ago after the tribe won approval to take the land into trust.
Plaintiffs in the suit include the city of Vancouver, Clark County, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Citizens Against Reservation Shopping — a group that includes Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell — and the owners and operators of La Center’s cardrooms. The group questions the Cowlitz people’s ties to the area and argues that the tribe is only interested in the property for its proximity to Portland, just 16 miles to the south.
The group is appealing District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein’s Dec. 12 decision to dismiss the lawsuit. Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Brent Boger said attorneys are working out a briefing schedule, and it appears the appellants’ opening brief will be due in late June if the court approves their proposal.