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March 27, 2023

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La Center Mayor Jim Irish won’t seek another term

He's dealt with Cowlitz casino plan, decline of city's cardrooms

By , Columbian Small Cities Reporter
2 Photos
La Center Mayor Jim Irish sits at a memorial for Michael J. Nolan built at the city's baseball fields four years ago.
La Center Mayor Jim Irish sits at a memorial for Michael J. Nolan built at the city's baseball fields four years ago. Irish is preparing to retire from a long career in Clark County politics. Photo Gallery

As filing week passed last month, a familiar name in every corner of Clark County politics was missing from the mix: Jim Irish.

The longtime La Center mayor is calling it a career this year, with plans to retire at the end of his term. Now in his 12th year as the small city’s mayor, Irish’s legacy could easily be defined by the extraordinary trials he’s endured during his time in office.

Irish, 68, was elected in 2003, the same year the Cowlitz Tribe announced plans to buy land just outside the city for a massive casino-resort on a new tribal reservation. It was a daunting threat that could spell economic disaster for La Center’s cardrooms, which serve as the city’s main revenue source.

“My father always said, ‘If you don’t like what’s going on, do something about it,’ ” Irish said.

Since then, it’s been Irish’s mission to diversify La Center’s economy. Today, he admits his results have been mixed.

“We needed to expand,” Irish said. “It just really is bad that I’m still waiting for the (Interstate 5) junction to develop. We have been sued and thwarted every way possible to keep us from getting out there to the junction.”

Over the years, city leaders struggled over how to approach the tribe. Would the casino put La Center’s cardrooms out of business? Perhaps, but Irish prides himself on finding a way to bring the two parties together to support both the city and the casino.

Irish’s outlook on the casino changed years ago after a conversation with late Vancouver philanthropist Ed Lynch, who told Irish that he virtually had no power to stop the tribe from building the casino-resort. No matter how hard anyone fought it in court, the decision to allow the tribe to establish a reservation next to I-5 is ultimately out of his hands, Irish said.

“It’s a federal decision,” he said.

After that, Irish reached out to John Barnett, who was the chairman of the Cowlitz Tribe at the time, to open a dialogue between the city of La Center and the Cowlitz Tribe. As a result, the city has been able to work with the tribe on plans to provide sewer services should the casino be erected someday.

In 2010, Irish was presented with a more personal challenge when doctors discovered cancerous growths in his esophagus. The road to survival wasn’t easy.

“They removed three-fourths of my esophagus,” Irish said. “Esophageal cancer is very slow growing, but it’s probably one of the most difficult cancers to get rid of.”

Three years later, the cancer returned, but this time, it wasn’t in a position where it could be surgically removed. After many rounds of chemo and radiation therapy, Irish finally beat the disease. Today, he’s cancer-free.

“It’s been a learning experience,” Irish said. “I have a lot of praise and thanks for the teams that worked on me.”

Irish has also endured the rise and fall of the cardroom industry. About half of Washington’s cardrooms have closed since the height of the industry in 2005.

That includes La Center’s Chips Casino, which finally shut its doors for good last year. The closure struck a major blow to the city, which typically gets about 75 percent of its budget from cardroom tax revenue.

It was with that in mind that Irish knew above all else he needed to strive to diversify La Center’s economy. That will be the prerogative of the city’s next mayor, as well.

Looking back on his time in office, Irish is proud of the expansions he’s overseen in the city’s police force and infrastructure.

“In capital projects, we’ve been able to get things going and get things done that will take us into the next 20 years,” he said.

All those struggles aside, though, Irish said his greatest challenge in office has actually been working with the county to get support for his economic march toward I-5.

“My greatest challenge, and the thing I’ve fighting all along has been — for the last eight or nine years — the total disregard for north Clark County by the county commissioners,” he said. “In north Clark County, we’re still the ugly stepchildren. And in fact, we’ve had to fight for everything we want to get.”

Irish’s mark as a politician extends far beyond his role as the mayor of La Center. This year, he’s in his second stint as the chairman of C-Tran’s board of directors, where he’s served for about a dozen years.

Irish also sits on the Association of Washington Cities board of directors. And since 2008, he’s served on the state’s Transportation Improvement Board.

In retirement, Irish plans to travel more often, but that doesn’t mean he’ll leave public service entirely. Instead, he plans to do volunteer work with La Center schools, Meals on Wheels and other local programs.

“I’m retiring from being mayor,” Irish said. “That doesn’t mean I’m quitting my responsibilities, or my duties as I see them, to the citizens of La Center.”

Columbian Small Cities Reporter