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Portland casino proposal eyed suspiciously by Warm Springs gaming officials

Grand Ronde casino issue put pressure on governor to stake out policy on off-reservation gambling
News Editor
   March 19, 2003 — City of Portland officials with Major League Baseball on their brains may have been too eager to capitalize on a casino proposal that might merely have been a cover to force the state's top leader to show his hand on off-reservation gambling.
   Last week, Gov. Ted Kulongoski rejected the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde proposal to finance a $350 million baseball stadium in exchange for permission to build a Portland casino.
   The Grand Ronde Tribes, which operate Spirit Mountain, the state's most successful casino 60 miles southwest of Portland, have done little to hide their fervent opposition to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs' casino proposals in the Columbia River Gorge.
   Some observers suspect Grand Ronde's proposal was a tool to force the governor to deny the casino plan, thereby setting a precedent against all off-reservation casinos -- Warm Springs' included.
   "The Grand Ronde would like to spin it that way," said Greg Leo, a Warm Springs gaming spokesman.
   However, Kulongoski's sentiments were carefully worded by his public relations staff, leaving the door open for Warm Springs to move forward with its pitch to build a casino in Cascade Locks.
   Scott Ballo, a governor's office spokesman, verified that position this week.
   "This had nothing to do with off-reservation casinos," he said. "It had to do with the specific proposal."
   Since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was adopted by Congress in 1988, tribes are prohibited from building casinos on nontribal land that wasn't owned in trust with the federal government prior to that year. State governors, however, have the unique power to grant exceptions to the rule.
   Kulongoski, through a spokesman, expressed his objection to linking gambling with Major League Baseball. Further, he said proposed casinos on nontribal land would be approached on a "case-by-case" basis.
   "That's the most important thing from out point of view, that this is going to be a case-to-case basis," Leo said.
   "I think the other important thing is that he enforced the one-casino rule."
   Warm Springs officials are negotiating with the City of Cascade Locks to build a gaming facility that could net between $35 and $38 million for the Confederated Tribes. They're eying a sites in the city's industrial park and on property on Government Rock they already own -- but both locations will be at Kulongoski's mercy since they fall under the definition of "after-acquired" land.
   The Tribes also own roughly 40 acres in trust near Hood River, but the windfalls of a casino there would be significantly less -- between $13 million and $15 million. To make matters more complicated, 174 acres of adjacent tribal-owned property that might be necessary to make the whole thing work is not held in trust. That means it also would face the governor's scrutiny.
   Another key difference between the potential Hood River and Cascade Locks sites is crucial: the former community resoundingly has expressed its opposition to a casino while the latter will embrace it.
   Leo said the Confederated Tribes are getting closer to making their final proposal to Kulongoski. The Tribes are finalizing a memorandum of understanding with Cascade Locks city officials.
   "We're still perfecting the request," Leo said. "Right now there's nothing for him to say `yes' or `no' to because the proposal hasn't been made."
   Warm Springs gaming officials suspect the Grand Ronde Tribes fear a Gorge casino would cut into the Portland market and take a bite out of their Spirit Mountain revenue.
   Grand Ronde officials have been lobbying elected leaders aggressively over the past year, even putting campaign cash behind candidates that appear friendly to their cause. Recently, the Grand Ronde Tribes funded a study that suggested most Cascade Locks residents oppose a casino in their backyard. City officials responded by calling the survey results "bogus," citing their funding source.
   After Kulongoski's recent Portland casino denial, Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy released a statement, saying, among other things: "The Governor's recent comments and now those of his staff leave uncertain his position on off-reservation gaming."
   Ballo, the Kulongoski spokesman, said the governor is in no hurry to set a policy in stone while faced with state budget problems, PERS and his ongoing work with the Legislature.
   "We have other areas we need to focus on right now," Ballo said.
   Leo said he is confident the Grand Ronde distraction will not derail the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs' plans.
   "We think that once the governor reviews the request on a case-to-case basis," Leo said "He'll balance what's good for the Tribe with what's good for Oregon."