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News / Business / Clark County Business

‘We’re a big business that serves our community’: ilani expands, showing commitment to future

Extra 10,000 feet of space is expected to attract bigger names in entertainment to casino resort

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 13, 2024, 7:32pm
2 Photos
Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, chairwoman of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday at ilani.
Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, chairwoman of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday at ilani. (Contributed photo) Photo Gallery

Today is the 24th anniversary of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s federal recognition. Tribal elders and council members marked the occasion Monday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a 10,000-square-foot addition to the 30,000-square-foot event and entertainment center at ilani near Ridgefield.

The expansion is significant not just in terms of square footage, additional jobs or the amount of money the new space is expected to generate. It also represents the Cowlitz Tribe’s commitment to the future, said Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, the tribe’s chairwoman.

“This is more than a convention center expansion; it’s an invitation to be part of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s ever-evolving story,” Kinswa-Gaiser said in a news release. “As we unveil this next chapter, the expansion stands as testimony to the tribe’s commitment to growth, community and cultural celebration.”

The event space pays visual homage to Cowlitz culture and the Pacific Northwest, Kara Fox-LaRose, ilani’s president and general manager, said in an interview Tuesday. Design elements include Camas flowers woven into the carpet’s pattern and fishing baskets framing the lights. The space is inspired by the longhouse where tribes would gather with their families, Fox-LaRose said, although it is enhanced with high ceilings, many windows and an outdoor terrace.

The extra 10,000 feet of space is expected to attract bigger names in entertainment, while additional “breakout spaces” and moveable partitions can accommodate out-of-state trade shows and larger conventions.

Fox-LaRose said ilani has already accepted venue bookings through 2025 and into 2026. She estimates ilani will add a few dozen jobs with the expanded space, a small part of the 1,500 jobs ilani has created since opening in 2017.

The 14-story, 300-room hotel is fully booked every weekend, Fox-LaRose said, and she’s seeing “a 20 percent lift in our outer market,” referring to visitors who live more than an hour’s drive away. The venue also aims to attract plenty of Clark County residents, especially those who visit regularly for gaming, live music and larger events, such as ilani BrewFest, running Thursday through Sunday.

“We’re a big business that serves our community, and we take that very seriously,” Fox-LaRose said.

The casino opened in April 2017, with additions or expansions every year. A 2,700-space parking structure opened in 2020, followed in 2021 by the Cowlitz Crossing gas station and convenience store. The casino was expanded in 2021, and The Stadium Sports Bar & Grill opened in 2022 with a betting lounge. Last year, in addition to the hotel, ilani opened Kids Quest child care center and Cyber Quest, an all-ages arcade.

What this means to Cowlitz Tribe members is economic development that was not possible before the casino existed, Kinswa-Gaiser said in an interview Tuesday. A percentage of casino revenue goes into a tribal fund to improve members’ lives with financial support for health care, housing and education.

“We’re able to send our tribal members to college and trade school,” Kinswa-Gaiser said. “We have health care that we never had before. We can take care of our members now.”

The Cowlitz Tribe doesn’t direct financial resources only to members. Since 2017, the Cowlitz Foundation, both Clark County and statewide funds, have given about $30 million to communities in the form of grants and donations. That level of local investment will continue as the Cowlitz Tribe pursues its plan for future expansion at ilani, Kinswa-Gaiser said.

“It’s great to see our longhouse expand, bringing entertainment and joy to the many people who attend events at the entertainment center,” said Tanna Engdahl, the tribe’s spiritual leader, who spoke at Monday’s ceremony. “It’s a continuation of our past. Our drive has always been, ‘Take care of our people, generations unborn that we’ll never see, going out to the seventh generation of their grandchildren.’”

Correction: The Cowlitz Indian Tribe was federally recognized Feb. 14, 2000, and its acknowledgement was reaffirmed in 2002. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date.