After more than a decade of acrimony, officials with the Cowlitz casino project say they are looking to “turn the page.”
“Fifteen years have passed, and here we are,” said Cowlitz tribal member Dave Barnett, project founder and son of the late Cowlitz Chairman John Barnett. “Let’s have some meaningful dialogue.”
Tribal and casino officials met with The Columbian Editorial Board on Thursday afternoon to talk over the state of the $500 million complex now under construction along Interstate 5 outside of La Center.
Despite an ongoing federal court appeal on a case brought by opponents and lingering opposition in the county, officials say it’s time start working together to increase the positive and decrease the negative impacts.
“I think we’re doing a good job mitigating the effects,” said the project’s general manager, Kara Fox-LaRose. “I think the stigma of a casino … maybe it’s a world of the unknown for some people.”
Set to open 10 months from now, the casino is being managed by the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which operates two casinos on the East Coast. Fox-LaRose has worked with Mohegan for 20 years and said when the first Mohegan Sun casino opened in Connecticut, “the community was afraid — all they knew was Atlantic City.”
Those fears have “dissipated” in the years since, she said.
Here, opposition has centered around an anticipated increase in traffic and crime and a disruption to the quiet rural character of north Clark County. Officials say they understand the concerns but pointed to the casino’s location — on 152 acres right off the interstate and not imbedded in neighborhoods.
“The casino is designed to complement, not dominate, the landscape,” said Peter Schultz with the Mohegan Tribe. He admitted, however, that neighbors’ mountain views may be blocked and the planned hotel would be more imposing.
Project and tribal officials are continuing to hold forums to dispel misinformation and “fears of the unknown,” Schultz said. Some of that has centered around the casino’s Environmental Protection Agency-approved wastewater injection system, which casino officials said would treat 70,000 to 100,000 gallons of wastewater per day back to drinkable standards and inject it back into the ground 120 feet above the aquifer. Officials were quick to point out other tribal casinos, including Cowlitz opponents Grand Ronde, use such a system.
“Everyone agrees this is the best system,” said Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall.
Even as the casino project lies in legal limbo, as a federal court mulls its fate, construction has sped along through the winter toward a planned April 17 opening.
“(The banks) are comfortable enough to go through with it,” Barnett said.
Others, too, have sensed the inevitable and have come around on the project.
In May the Vancouver City Council voted to end its opposition to the casino, and a few weeks later the Clark County Council voted to reopen dialogue with the tribe.
“(It’s) being able to turn the page and press the reset button,” Barnett said.