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News / Business / Clark County Business

As ilani marks first anniversary, cities say growth a sure bet

Ridgefield, La Center poised to capitalize on visitors, investment drawn to Cowlitz Tribe’s nearby casino

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer, and
Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer
Published: May 6, 2018, 6:05am
9 Photos
ilani is gearing up for its second year of business, as seen near La Center on Wednesday morning, May 2, 2018.
ilani is gearing up for its second year of business, as seen near La Center on Wednesday morning, May 2, 2018. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — With a large and luxurious new concert and convention venue, there are more reasons than ever for the public to visit ilani, the casino that opened a year ago north of Vancouver. But nearby towns are still waiting for those people to wander a bit outside of ilani’s gaming floor.

Thousands of people flocked to the new Cowlitz Ballroom last month to watch acts such as rapper Vanilla Ice, country music group Little Big Town and comedian Jay Leno. Casino officials say it’s clear more customers are filling the expansive complex’s parking lot, restaurants and gaming floor.

“We haven’t looked at it in terms of percentages but I would say these (days) have been significantly busier,” said Tom Teesdale, vice president of marketing for ilani. “When you have a good business at the core, then add 2,500 additional concertgoers to the property, it’s making for a very busy night.”

One year after its grand opening, the $510 million casino seems popular. Teesdale wouldn’t disclose attendance numbers but said memberships to the casino’s loyalty program have so far outpaced expectations.

“It’s been very, very encouraging,” he said.

Jointly built by the Cowlitz Tribe and the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, ilani (the word means “sing” in the Cowlitz language) expects to draw more than 4 million visitors a year. It is the closest casino to the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area, with 75 gaming tables, 2,500 slot machines, 10 restaurants and three retail stores.

Teesdale said operators expect to see attendance dip during the summer when people seize sunnier days, but that could be made up by the sheer pace that Portland and Southwest Washington are growing.

“I think the whole area is poised to attract more and more folks to the area,” he said.

Ilani has already added 400 new parking spaces and an extra lane to a roundabout that helps direct traffic off of the Interstate 5 interchange it spent $32 million redeveloping a year ago.

Whether many of those people are visiting neighboring cities, however, remains unclear. Officials from surrounding towns say they are growing, but it cannot be linked directly to the casino.

However, they do believe that orbit around ilani will eventually bring more prosperity to their cities. Public safety and transportation officials say that the 368,000-square-foot gaming center has not stressed their operations.

Shifting gravity

Ridgefield, which is listed as the casino’s address though the two have a lot of open land between them, is waiting for the next cards to turn.

City Manager Steve Stuart said that while Ridgefield has not yet seen big economic shifts directly attributable to ilani, the casino’s presence has already been an asset to help recruit other businesses.

Combined with big names heading to Sunlight Supply Amphitheater this summer and the city’s own $20 million outdoor recreation complex under construction, Stuart said northern Clark County is becoming the “center of gravity for entertainment.”

“It gives great potential for us,” he said. “When we talk to those types of businesses that are either hospitality or entertainment, they see that. They see that center of gravity developing in the area.”

Ridgefield is already among the fastest-growing cities in Washington, with hundreds of new single-family residences under construction. It just landed a deal for its first supermarket, though the store, Rosauers, declined to say whether the casino was a factor in its decision.

The city hopes to land more jobs in the future. Stuart said leveraging its proximity to ilani and the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge could entice more workers.

“You build a quality of life where people want to live, work and play, and you give entrepreneurs and startups the atmosphere and innovation and growth,” he said. “Give them places to get outdoors and think, those are the kinds of spaces that attract truly innovative companies.”

Cardrooms decline

Attracting new businesses will also be the goal for La Center, as the city’s vital gambling tax revenues have dwindled over the last three years while ilani became a surer bet.

More people are traveling through La Center lately, Mayor Greg Thornton is sure, and he said that is good news.

The town of 3,200 is facing a shifting economic base since the decline of its cardrooms, which at one time offered the most convenient gambling venue to all of the Vancouver-Portland metro area. But with a slight uptick in new residents and greater traffic, La Center now might be able to capitalize on its land holdings.

Ilani’s first year: By the Numbers

2,753 — glasses of cabernet sauvignon wine sold at Michael Jordan’s Steak House

423,025 — Meals served to ilani employees at The Grill and Chill employee cafeteria since April 2017

199 — Emergency medical responses (first 50 weeks)

35 — Arrests

400 — Parking spaces added since opening day

0 — Traffic jams backing onto Interstate 5 after opening day

Sources: ilani; Clark County Fire and Rescue; Clark County Sheriff’s Office; Washington State Department of Transportation

The Cowlitz Tribe fronted $5 million for the city to lay infrastructure along the freeway, which would greet casinogoers as they exit the freeway going northbound.

Construction is complete and now the city awaits applications for anything from a light-industrial tenant to offices to hotels to residences.

“I don’t know how much more shovel-ready you can get,” said Jeff Sarvis, the city’s public works director.

So far, the city has not received a single application, but Thornton isn’t worried. The city recently created an economic development director job it hopes to fill.

“I think it will be a function of time. The casino has only been operating for a year now,” Thornton said. “It would have been nice for something to happen by now, but it’s pretty much all market driven.”

One other driving factor, however, might be its declining tax base.

At the four cardrooms’ peak, La Center collected more than $3 million in gambling taxes per year. Since 2014, however, tax revenues have dried up; two cardrooms have closed. The two remaining cardrooms continue to offer house-banked poker, a game not available at ilani.

La Center now posts shrinking tax revenues regularly. The gambling tax that once filled 79 percent of the general fund barely covers half today. For the first quarter of 2018, the city received $381,178 from gambling taxes — a 42 percent drop from the $657,622 made in last year’s first quarter.

That could pressure the city’s basic city services, though the city has managed to store up a $1.2 million surplus from the last two years of gambling tax revenue.

Thornton said he isn’t worried because he expects the city to grow soon. Already La Center has more housing starts this year than projected. He just isn’t sure if ilani is to thank for that or whether it is just part of the overall growth in Clark County.

“Traffic is definitely picking up and we have more and more traffic coming through La Center all the time,” he said. “I think La Center will start seeing more commercial-type developments when our population begins to grow a little bit more.”

Minimal crime

Crime and emergency services calls so far have been a nonfactor, law enforcement officials say.

The casino has an in-house security staff and the Cowlitz Tribe has a tribal police force, but it also contracts for services with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and Clark Fire and Rescue.

“When they opened last year, there were lots of people fretting that it was going to be an overwhelming drain on resources,” Clark County Fire and Rescue Chief John Nohr said. “We’re not seeing that created by the resort right now.”

His agency’s first responders have visited the casino regularly — 199 times in its first 50 weeks. Most were medical calls mixed in with the occasional minor fire call, Nohr said. He added that the responses are not unusual for an operation of that size and it is not creating problems as some feared.

“It has not affected response times,” he said. “We have the capacity to absorb those four calls a week without leaving anybody without response services.”

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office makes about two or three visits per day to the casino, according to law enforcement officials. There have been about 35 arrests there over the past year, running the gamut from parking lot disturbances to drunks to fraud to theft.

“It’s a lot like Walmart,” said Sgt. Duncan Hoss, before echoing Nohr’s statements that the casino is not a problem for the force. “Two or three calls per day over a 24-hour period, especially if they’re minor ones, is not that impactful.”

What could change that is a hotel, which the casino is expected to open in the next couple of years.

Nohr said more people, especially people staying overnight, would probably increase calls for service. In turn, his department could raise its contract price in order to place another unit in service at the nearest fire station, or maybe even build a new station close to the casino.

Hotel impact

A hotel at or near ilani seems all but assured. Construction is more than a year away at least, but city officials are expecting a splash.

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“When the hotel opens up, that’ll be the next big change and that’ll be the biggest of the changes,” Stuart said. “When you have people truly staying and playing — not just coming there for a show or to gamble and leave — that’s when you start getting conventions and more people staying over.”

Casino officials are currently paying for a feasibility study for a hotel; it might not be finished this year. But there is clearly demand for more hotel space locally.

According to the tourism agency Visit Vancouver USA, there are 11 hotels planned in Clark County. Ilani’s new meeting space could also compete with the Hilton Vancouver Washington if there is a hotel.

Will Finn, mayor of Woodland, said he knows more people are renting rooms for the night in his town after visiting the casino. He expects that they are usually people visiting the casino from north of Cowlitz County.

“Right now they’re using our hotels,” he said, adding that, like La Center, the city is trying to develop pieces of land and it is targeting more hotels. “I’m personally meeting with developers and letting them know we’re here with land and a casino up the way.”

Ridgefield isn’t waiting for the Cowlitz Tribe’s hotel to open, either. City officials have talked with landowners about three hotel concepts near Interstate 5. Plus, having the casino in the first place could help them attract a hotelier.

“I have every expectation that that’s going to happen because the market’s there,” Stuart said. “Everyone of those hoteliers, they’re there because ilani is right next door. Us alone doesn’t get it done.”

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Columbian staff writer
Columbian Staff Writer