Thursday, March 30, 2023
March 30, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Ridgefield, La Center officials say ilani proves a winning hand

North Clark County cities praise Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s community spirit, development at I-5 junction that benefits all parties

By , Columbian staff writer
success iconThis article is available exclusively to subscribers like you.
10 Photos
Cars and trucks travel past the upgraded La Center junction on Interstate 5. The upgrades were paid for by the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.
Cars and trucks travel past the upgraded La Center junction on Interstate 5. The upgrades were paid for by the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — It’s been nearly six years since ilani opened its doors in 2017. Much has changed in the intervening years, perhaps none more so than the relationships the Cowlitz Indian Tribe has with the cities of La Center and Ridgefield.

When the tribe announced its plans to build a casino in far northern Clark County, they were met with opposition from both cities as well as Vancouver, the county and numerous residents. Then came a flurry of lawsuits. Even as construction on the casino was nearly at an end, La Center’s cardrooms took the fight, unsuccessfully, to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Yet, six years later, it seems the relationship between the Cowlitz tribe and city officials didn’t suffer any long-lasting damage. Cowlitz Indian Tribe General Council Chair Patty Kinswa-Gaiser said she regularly meets with the mayors of La Center and Ridgefield as well as other staff.

“From when we did the groundbreaking for the original casino, the tribe has joined with the community. We’ve made positive reinforcement with the community that wasn’t there before,” she said. “I work with and meet with the Ridgefield mayor and La Center mayor … and we have a good working relationship.”

For ilani President Kara Fox-LaRose, creating and maintaining relationships with the cities and county is important to the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and its business partner, the Mohegan Indian Tribe.

“Both tribes have been focused on ensuring that we’re making a conscious effort to evaluate our market as we continue to move forward. Since we first conceived of building ilani, our mission was certainly clear: to be the best at what we do and have a positive impact on the local community,” Fox-LaRose said in an interview Tuesday.

Legal battles

Breaking ground on the casino complex came after years of fighting and legal challenges from the neighboring cities and businesses as well as Clark County. While cardrooms in La Center were worried the new casino would drive them out of business, neighboring property owners were concerned about stormwater runoff from the 156-acre property and development.

“We’re obviously not opposed to gaming or Native Americans. The location doesn’t work. Not just for our business, but a for a lot of private businesses and landowners. That’s why the opposition has always gone for so long,” said John Bockmier, spokesman for the cardrooms, said in a 2016 interview.

The legal challenges failed and in 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the federal government had reasonably interpreted federal law when it recognized the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and that the area near Interstate 5 could be designated as a reservation. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear an appeal.

Fast forward to 2023 and the casino’s new 14-story hotel is slated to open in May. In February, Fox-LaRose announced the tribe was breaking ground on a 10,000-square-foot events and entertainment center expected to open in 2024. At the Feb. 14 groundbreaking, Fox-LaRose said the expansion was “certainly critical not only to the sustainability of the investments here on the reservation but also for those that this facility serves.”

Fox-LaRose said she understands why people may have been skeptical before the casino was built, but hopes seeing the business in action and the benefits it brings has alleviated those fears.

“I’m certainly proud to work for people that are community minded and focused on brand integrity and having a positive impact,” she said.

Giving purpose

For Kinswa-Gaiser, there’s a higher purpose for the casino and tribe — serving the needs of the community.

“We’re able to help these communities through our (Cowlitz Tribal) Foundation. We are able to help them a lot financially with a fire truck and two ambulances. We help the nonprofit community members all around Clark County.”

In March 2022, the tribe donated a new, fully equipped fire engine worth around $700,000 to Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue to serve La Center as well as the reservation. In November, the tribe awarded another $700,000 to the fire district for the purchase of two ambulances.

While all charitable activities are eligible for support from the foundation, priority is especially given to education. According to tribe officials, before gaming revenues started coming in, elders would collect a few hundred dollars to help students with tuition. That changed in 2017 when the tribe created a formal tuition reimbursement program using gaming revenue. The Cowlitz Tuition Assistance Program now has approximately 250 tribal members receiving tuition assistance in vocational certification and college and university degrees. The program’s 2023-24 budget is $3 million.

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe through the Cowlitz Tribal Foundation Clark County Fund has also pledged contributions of $120,000 over three years to the Local Media Foundation to support a reporter at The Columbian assigned to cover the environment and climate change.

Declining revenues

While the casino’s opening may not have shut down their businesses, La Center’s cardrooms — and the city — have certainly been impacted.

Before 2017, the city of La Center’s revenues from gaming averaged a little over $3 million annually. In 2017, the same year the casino opened, revenue dropped to just under $2.4 million. In 2018 and 2019, revenue numbers dropped even further, to around $1.27 million annually. And when the pandemic hit in 2020, revenues hit rock bottom with just $387,000 for the year.

Although the city’s gaming revenues have rebounded from 2020’s low, they are still less than half what they were before ilani opened. The city received $1.09 million in 2021 and $1.67 million in 2022.

Kinswa-Gaiser said she believes there is enough business in the county to support the casino and La Center’s cardrooms.

“People have their personal preferences. If they want to play cards, they’ll go there to play cards,” she said. “I know they cater to their clientele.”

Representatives for the cardrooms declined to be interviewed for this article.

Moving forward

La Center Mayor Greg Thornton said change is inevitable.

“Things never stay the same. They’re ever-changing. Once ilani moved forward with building the project at the junction there have been quite a few changes in La Center,” Thornton said.

While one of those changes is the decline in gaming revenue — “The gaming market has definitely changed. That’s had an impact,” Thornton said — there are good changes, as well.

“Since we learned they were going to go forward with their project … the city of La Center was successful in annexing the property — the city limits prior were at the La Center bridge — out to La Center junction,” Thornton said.

Annexing the property added another two miles of land to the city’s jurisdiction, and the city will benefit as the property is developed. Thornton said the Cowlitz Indian Tribe paid for a sewer conveyance line that runs from the city’s wastewater treatment plant in La Center to the new $32 million Interstate 5 interchange also paid for by the tribe.

“Because of that, we’ve had increased development activity at the junction,” Thornton said.

One example of that new development, Thornton said, is the former Shell gas station at the I-5 junction that has been torn down and is being replaced by a new convenience store, restaurant and retail shops.

“Overall, the investments that the Cowlitz Indian Tribe have made, particularly at the La Center junction, will really provide a much more attractive gateway into the city of La Center,” Thornton added.

Thornton said the city is very optimistic about development at the junction which could replace some of the gaming revenue losses through development fees, property taxes and sales tax dollars.

“We continue to look forward to working with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe to work mutually on having a vision for the La Center junction,” Thornton said.

County impacts

According to Mark Gassaway, finance director for Clark County, “the county doesn’t receive any revenue directly from the casinos in La Center or ilani.” Although counties are allowed to collect taxes on gaming activities, the can only collect taxes on gaming within their jurisdiction. That does not include La Center’s cardrooms, which are within its city limits, and ilani, which is on the Cowlitz reservation.

By state law, taxes on amusement games, like those found at carnivals and fairs, cannot exceed 2 percent of net receipts and bingo and raffles are 5 percent of net receipts. Social card games, which include La Center’s cardrooms, can be taxed up to 20 percent of gross receipts.

How the tax revenues collected can be spent is also restricted by state law and must be used for public safety purposes. Unlike other taxes, gambling taxes do not require voter approval.

Because the casino is within reservation boundaries, the tribe also does not pay property taxes, although property taxes were collected prior to 2016. From 2006 to 2015, the county collected just under $489,000 in property taxes.

Even without the tax revenues, Fox-LaRose said the casino has been a major economic driver for the county. For example, the casino has brought hundreds of new jobs — and new residents — to Clark County, she said.

“We have just about 1,500 employees. Then we’re preparing for the upcoming opening of our luxury hotel which is slated to open in the spring and that will have just over an additional 200 employees as well,” Fox-LaRose said.

Many of the casino’s employees also live here, have bought homes, shop and send their kids to school in Clark County, which translates to more sales tax and property tax revenue for the county and cities.

Other benefits

One city that has seen substantial change in the last five years is Ridgefield. Like the county, the city of Ridgefield does not receive tax revenues from the casino operations.

“We don’t get the direct tax revenue. We have received monies from the Cowlitz tribe and the partnership between the Cowlitz tribe and ilani, but not direct tax revenues,” Ridgefield City Manager Steve Stuart said.

Stuart said the city received $50,000 from the foundation to help install pedestrian safety screens near the I-5 junction.

“Part of the project is working with artists to develop the art sculptures that will go on the pedestrian screens. We applied for and received $50,000 from … the foundation for that artwork,” Stuart said.

There have been other benefits for the city. Stuart said the tribe paid $70,000 for a new patrol vehicle for the Ridgefield Police Department as a thank-you for the partnership between the city and the tribe and the partnership between the police and the tribe’s law enforcement agency.

This doesn’t include contributions from the tribal foundation made to local groups and nonprofits.

“We’ve definitely seen a lot of contributions to our local organizations from ilani and the Cowlitz tribe, financial contributions and in-kind contributions,” Stuart said.

Community partners

Stuart agreed the working relationship between the city and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe has been a good one.

“They’ve been great community partners. They really have. They have been involved. They have been interested in helping wherever they can. They’ve been open with opportunities for partnering on projects,” Stuart said. “They have been working with us to jointly plan for the infrastructure to support not only the tribal reservation but the city.”

There are other intangible benefits that will impact Ridgefield for years to come, Stuart said.

“The benefits we see with the increased interest in business development at the Ridgefield junction is due to the increased economic activity at ilani,” Stuart said. “When we talk to businesses and they’re looking for locations … they are more attracted to us knowing that there are that many more people, eyes, cars driving by that they can attract to their business.”