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Tribes weighing casino options

Possible site at Cascade Locks is all but eliminated from casino expansion discussions as Warm Springs plans referendum
News Editor
   Feb. 13, 2002 -- The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is moving forward with plans to construct a new casino but one detail remains undetermined: Where?
   The Tribal Council will pose the question as a referendum before reservation voters in May. In the meantime, the council is asking tribal members to weigh in on where they'd like to see the new casino through district meetings and "home base" gatherings with extended families.
   The options: in Hood River or along Highway 26 on the reservation.
   "It's probably going to be the most challenging question for us this year," said Rudy Clements, Director of Tribal Relations and Chairman of High Desert Resort and Casino. "Time is running short."
   A study conducted by EconNorthwest, a consulting economics firm, suggests that a Warm Springs-owned casino in Hood River could generate a net revenue of $13.3 million to $15.5 million per year by drawing an estimated 2 million visitors. A casino located on the reservation could net between $4.3 million and $4.5 million and draw 550,000 visitors.
   Declining annual revenues, most notably in timber receipts and hydroelectric power sales, has added a sense of urgency to the referendum discussion. Budget woes could force the tribal government to enact drastic cuts to programs and services.
   Therefore, the referendum talk so far does not include a potential site on 34 acres of non-trust property in Cascade Locks because Gov. John Kitzhaber has refused to budge on his gaming policy.
   State governors have authority to approve or deny gaming facilities on Native American trust property acquired after October 1988, the year the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed by Congress.
   Kitzhaber has approved casinos on land acquired after 1988 but remained firmly against Warm Springs' desire to build in Cascade Locks.
   "We think the governor's after-acquired land policy is a sham," said Greg Leo, a spokesman for Warm Springs Tribal Gaming. "There is an unfairness in the governor's policy when six out of the eight (Oregon) tribes have built on after-acquired land. His policy says `no' to those that have always had a reservation and `yes' to those that were restored."
   Clements said the Cascade Locks site could potentially net $35 million to $38 million per year. He said the Confederated Tribes have filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put those 34 acres in trust along with the 174 non-trust acres in Hood River.
   Warm Springs officials have said a casino in Cascade Locks is not totally out of the picture but isn't a feasible option for consideration in the referendum given the current governor's policy.
   "We've been at this for years and we're losing thousands of dollars a day by not moving forward," Clements said.
   Of the six gubernatorial candidates, Republicans Jack Roberts and Ron Saxton are the only politicians to have gone on the record saying they would approve a casino in Cascade Locks outright. The other four primary contenders have expressed a mixture of sentiments, from being "supportive" and "willing to work with the tribe" to "hedging a little bit," Leo said.
   The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, which owns Spirit Mountain Casino in Salem on land acquired after 1988, contributed $5,000 to Republican Kevin Mannix's campaign after an extensive interview where they pushed him on whether he'd support a Warm Springs-owned casino in Cascade Locks. They have expressed concerns about a Cascade Locks casino drawing gamers who live in the Portland metropolitan area away from Spirit Mountain.
   Democrat Ted Kulongowski, who carries Kitzhaber's endorsement, has hedged because of it. Democrat Beverly Stein has been supportive and Democrat Jim Hill's view on the matter remains unknown, Leo said.
   However, Leo said, the tribes need to have a working plan for its casino before the November election.
   "We can't afford to wait for a new governor," he said. "The financial situation of the tribe is not good. Unless we can get a new source of revenue on line quickly, there will be some real hardships on the Warm Springs people."
   The discussions with the tribal membership will help determine the language of the referendum and how gaming revenues should be spent. Members are being asked to weigh financial impacts as well as consider how many jobs could be created in Hood River or on the reservation.
   The Hood River site on land acquired prior to 1988 would employ roughly 850. A casino on Highway 26 would employ far less but potentially could employ more tribal members.
   The Indian Head Casino at the Kah-Nee-Ta resort, by comparison, employs 80 and generates $4 million in net revenue per year.
   "The main thing we want to convey is that the decision is not predetermined," Clements said. "We'll do what the tribal members say by giving them a clear, accurate picture so we can get their feedback and recommendations."
   It is unknown whether Indian Head will be able to remain open after a new casino is built because Kitzhaber has maintained a "one-casino-per-tribe" policy, Leo said.
   Plans to build a new casino have been three years in the making. The casino question has been posed once before. In a May 2000 referendum, the tribal membership voted against placing a gaming facility in Madras' industrial park by a 2-1 ratio.
   A large majority of Hood River residents have been against casino plans east of their city adjacent to the Mark O. Hatfield state park, which is ancestral land of the Warm Springs Tribes.
   Cascade Locks, meanwhile, has welcomed a casino in its back yard with Hood River's blessing because of the jobs and economic stimulus it would bring to the community.
   "The people in Cascade Locks want us there but John Kitzhaber is about the only guy in the state that says we can't go there and he happens to be the guy that makes the decision," Leo said. "It's very frustrating."