Before more than a decade of litigation and acrimony, the Cowlitz Tribe made a promise to Clark County. Late last month, part of that promise was kept.
On Aug. 27, the Cowlitz Tribe Education and Arts Fund awarded $409,000 to seven nonprofit organizations in Clark County. The awards are the first made by the charitable fund that’s part of a commitment the tribe made in 2007 to share the benefits from ilani, the casino resort that opened in 2017 outside of Ridgefield.
The decision to award the grants was made by a five-member board comprised of representatives from both Clark County and the tribe. It signals the Cowlitz Tribe and Clark County have continued to forge a more collaborative relationship, after years of sometimes bitter opposition by the county and other governments to the casino.
Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring and Councilor Temple Lentz, the county’s representatives on the board, said the grant process strengthened the relationship between the county and tribe, and highlighted shared priorities. Karissa Lowe, who chairs the fund’s board, said it was a chance to build on existing community ties.
“We’ve been a part of this community since time immemorial; we are the Forever People and we want to be part of this community,” Lowe said.
Organizations that were awarded multiyear grants received the money only for the first year in the inaugural round of awards in late August.
‘Trying to build the ship as we fly it’
The ilani casino was widely opposed by local governments in Clark County out of concerns for its potential impact on housing, traffic and the environment.
In response, the Cowlitz Tribal Council passed an ordinance in 2007 intended to ease the anticipated effects of the casino. Under the ordinance, the tribe agreed to reimburse the county for law enforcement on tribal lands and lost property tax revenue, while also complying with health regulations and contributing financially to a problem gambling program.
The ordinance also committed the tribe to pay 2 percent of net revenues from gaming on tribal lands to an arts and education fund to be overseen by a five-member board. The ordinance specified that two members would be from the county and two from the tribe, with the fifth being picked by the other four board members.
Other tribes with casinos have similar arrangements. For instance, Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde operates its Spirit Mountain Community Fund, which is based on the net revenue of gaming activity and has given out $81.9 million since 1997.
While the ilani casino opened in 2017, the ordinance was forgotten by county officials until David Barnett, a member of the tribal council, reminded them of it.
Since then, the tribe has made other promised payments. Earlier this year, the county and tribe began assembling the board. With Quiring and Lentz representing the county, the Cowlitz selected Lowe, a member of the tribal council, and Tanna Engdahl, the tribe’s spiritual leader. Jennifer Rhoads, president of the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, was later selected as the fifth member.
Lowe said the newly formed board began meeting over the summer and deciding how to put together a process to award the grants. When asked about the fund’s balance, Lowe said in an email that it had about $2.2 million to donate this year. She said future grants will be considered on a rolling basis, and if the total isn’t awarded this year, it will be rolled into next year’s allocation.
She said the fund’s board is run without the support of paid staff. Having to create a grant-awarding process from scratch, she said the board decided to reach out to organizations the tribe knew well, inviting them to apply for the first round.
“We are trying to build the ship as we fly it,” said Lentz, who described the collaboration as “productive and forward-looking.”
Lentz said that to be eligible for grants, organizations had to be local nonprofits providing some sort of arts or education program in Clark County. The board received 10 applications, she said, and seven were funded in the first round.
One of the challenges, Lentz said, was maximizing the impact of the grants by funding large nonprofits while also funding smaller nonprofits doing good work.
“It’s supposed to be an arts and education fund but that’s pretty broad,” Lowe added.
The awards range from a one-year, $5,000 grant to the Northwest Film Forum for the development of the film “Buffalo Soldiers of the Pacific Northwest” to much larger grants. For instance, Cascade Forest Conservancy received a three-year, $350,000 grant to expand outreach and education.
Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge received a two-year, $50,000 grant to hire a part-time employee to oversee volunteers for cultural and environmental education, as well as habitat restoration and visitor services.
Alix Danielsen, the group’s board president, said that when ilani, which is north of the refuge, opened up, they reached out to the tribe to discuss working together. She said Engdahl, who also sits on the Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s board, let them know about the upcoming grant process.
Danielsen said her group relies heavily on volunteers, and having a coordinator will make them more effective.
“It’s capacity-building money, and we are very grateful to be able to hire a part-time position over the next two years,” she said.
The Mount St. Helens Institute will receive a three-year, $350,000 grant for its educational programs to ensure that disadvantaged Clark County youth have access to STEM education. Ray Yurkewycz, executive director of the institute, said the extra money will sustain existing educational programs that bring about 5,000 kids a year to outdoor school at the volcano. He said the grant will help the institute plan for the long-term and free up other resources.
“(The Cowlitz Tribe) have been here longer than anyone,” Yurkewycz said. “They understand the value (of the volcano).”
Lowe said the fund has plans to build capacity and eventually begin soliciting more applications. She said that while many of the grants had an environmental focus, a whole range of groups will be served.
“We are just really excited to support Clark County this way,” she said.