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Casino goes nowhere fast

Watchers of Wood Village project say 2008 vote looks unlikely
by: COURTESY OF OREGON ENTERTAINMENT CENTER, Plans for a casino complex in Wood Village can’t proceed until voters give the OK by changing the state constitution. To get their initiative on the fall ballot, the casino’s backers would need to gather thousands of signatures by July 3 – a task some observers say is almost impossible at this date.

Backers hoping to build a Las Vegas-style casino at a former greyhound track east of Portland are starting out of the gate slowly in their effort to make the November ballot with an initiative to change the state constitution to allow the casino.

Bruce Studer, one of two local promoters of the $500 million casino-hotel project, said the initiative campaign will commence soon. But promoters and their unidentified gaming-industry partner have not begun signature-gathering, despite clearing legal appeals nearly two months ago.

Initiative experts said it's getting late to gather the necessary petition signatures by the July 3 deadline. People monitoring the casino project are speculating that the campaign isn't going forward.

Backers need 110,358 valid petition signatures to put the constitutional amendment on Oregon's November ballot. And they need 82,769 signatures for a companion measure that would change state law to, among other things, dedicate 25 percent of the casino's proceeds to education and children's health care.

'I believe with the amount of time that's available for them, it would be next to impossible to qualify both of the initiatives,' said Tim Trickey, who runs Democracy Direct Inc., a Clackamas signature-gathering firm.

Studer and his partner Matt Rossman did not respond to interview requests, aside from Studer's promise in a phone message last week to kick off the campaign soon.

They hope to coax Oregon voters to amend the state constitution to allow a single private casino in the state, at the former Multnomah Kennel Club in Wood Village. Backers also propose the second initiative to dedicate the money to education and children's health care - which could sweeten the pot for state voters.

But the huge casino and hotel complex has many opponents, including Gov. Ted Kulongoski, bar and restaurant owners, and American Indian tribes. The casino probably would crimp profits from Oregon's lucrative state lottery and Portland-area retailers hosting the lottery's video slots and poker machines.

And it would lure customers away from Spirit Mountain, the Grand Ronde tribal casino about an hour and a half southwest of Portland, and a proposed Warm Springs tribal casino in the Columbia River Gorge.

Trickey, whose firm has gathered most initiative signatures for proposed 2008 Oregon ballot measures, said he initially geared up to bid for Studer and Rossman's initiatives. But he never got the chance to compete, and now it may be too late.

'At this point, I would say I would have to tell them their chances are very, very low of making the ballot,' Trickey said. 'I, in good conscience, couldn't take it. I feel like I would be wasting their money.'

Ted Blaszak, who runs a rival signature-gathering company, said he couldn't discuss the casino campaign. Blaszak is president of Democracy Resources, which often works on union-backed initiative campaigns.

Delays stretch on

Studer and Rossman have closely guarded the identity of their corporate partner from the gaming world, though they initially promised to reveal it a couple years ago. Then their bid for the 2006 ballot was scrapped when legal appeals left them with a short window for signature-gathering.

Studer and Rossman started early for the next round of state initiatives, pegged for this November's ballot. They secured clearance to commence signature-gathering on four initiatives back in March 2007.

But they didn't take those initiatives to the streets, and started anew with three reworded initiative measures. Legal appeals surrounding those three measures were exhausted in January and February, but still they didn't hit the streets with petitioners.

Trickey and others said it's still possible to meet the signature-gathering deadline, given the money a gaming company could spend gathering signatures.

There are 11 weeks left to gather signatures. The Oregon Family Council set the modern-day record when it gathered more than 200,000 signatures in six weeks to put a gay-marriage ban on the 2004 ballot.

But that group benefited from a network of evangelical churches whose members were outraged at the notion of gay marriage after Multnomah County began granting licenses to same-sex couples.

Signatures take time

Kevin Looper, executive director of Our Oregon, a Portland-based group active in initiative campaigns, said it's hard to say when it's too late to start signature gathering for 2008 measures.

'But I would certainly say we're in that zone,' he said. 'Certainly by the end of the month, if you're not out there with a serious effort, then it's just hard to imagine how someone could qualify.'

A 2007 initiative reform law made signature gathering more difficult than before, Trickey said. It would take a campaign a week's time to do all the paperwork now required for signature gatherers, he said.

And California has been luring professional signature gatherers away from Oregon, because they get paid better there and there are fewer restrictions on where they can petition, he said.

Justin Martin, a lobbyist for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde who filed legal challenges to the casino ballot measures, now is wondering if the project will go ahead.

'I'm kind of surprised they aren't doing anything,' Martin said. 'It's going to save my tribe and my client millions of dollars if they don't go.'

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