ODOT officials say it's too early to say if new gaming facility will relieve traffic locally

With the April 24 opening of the Cowlitz tribe's Ilani casino near La Center, Wash., media reports from that day indicate that Interstate 5 was jammed for miles with drivers from the Portland metro area looking to get into the new, 368,000-square foot gaming facility about 25 miles north of Portland.

While that may be bad news for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and their casino —– Spirit Mountain, about 60 miles southwest of Portland — drivers headed north instead of southwest may be a boon for Newberg and Dundee's efforts to get traffic off of Highway 99W and make downtown safer for pedestrians. SUBMITTED  - Traffic from Portland that before last week would be headed through Newberg and Dundee toward Oregon's No. 1 destination, Spirit Mountain Casino, may now be headed north 16 miles to the Ilani Casino in Ridgefield, Wash.

Still, Lou Torres, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, cautioned that a number of factors are in play and it is still too early to say if traffic will really be impacted by the new casino.

"I think we will have to see how it plays out for a while and then we can look at traffic numbers.  I think it is way too early to make any projections," he said in an email.

Ilani opened to grand fanfare, with thousands waiting outside that morning, at times impatiently chanting for the casino to "open," as Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. The 3,000-space parking lot was filled by noon and traffic was backed up for miles as people made their way to what is now the closest casino to Portland.

The $510 million complex, which includes a 100,000- square-foot gaming floor with 2,500 gaming machines and 75 gaming tables and is expected to draw 4.5 million visitors per year, is the fruition of efforts by the Cowlitz tribe going back decades.

The tribe gained federal recognition in 2000 and was approved to have a reservation near Ridgefield soon after, according to the Oregonian/Oregon Live. The reservation approval prompted a number of area groups to mount a legal challenge, including the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Justin Martin, a spokesman for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, did not respond for a request for information for this story.

Previous articles in the confederation's newspaper, Smoke Signals, state the tribes basic legal argument was that the Clark County area, including Ridgefield and La Center, is part of their historical homelands and not part of what they contend is the traditional lands of the Cowlitz about 60 miles further north.

Beyond that, KOIN 6 reports Spirit Mountain fears a 41 percent drop in revenue with the new casino.

The confederation eventually dropped out of the legal challenge after a July U.S. Court of Appeals decision went in favor of the Cowlitz, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case early in April, leaving the appeals court decision in place.

"The Tribe continues to believe it is wrong for the Cowlitz to build a casino in Clark County, a region historically belonging to the Tribes and Bands of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde," Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairman Reyn Leno said in a statement reported by Smoke Signals in July.

To compete, Spirit Mountain announced the completion of a $13 million remodel of about 82,000 square feet of the casino, a project that was timed to finish specifically before the opening of Ilani, according to a Smoke Signals article.

Despite the new casino drawing a large crowd on its first day, Torres noted that it may not necessarily relieve Yamhill County of some the traffic passing through on 99W, pointing to growth in McMinnville, Dundee and Newberg.

"With the steady and continued business and residential growth, it may be hard to predict how much influence the new casino will have. Bottom line, it is too early to determine," Torres said.

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