Tribe puts hope in new casino

Tribe puts hope in new casino

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By Linda Baker

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Above: Construction crews work on the new Indian Head Casino on Highway 26 near the Warm Springs Museum. Below: Warm Springs tribal council members Reuben Henry, Scott Moses and Olney "JP" Patt Jr. voted last February to relocate the Kah-Nee-Ta casino. The new facility, which is expected to generat 200 jobs, is scheduled to open on Feb. 4.
// Photos by Alexandra Shyshkina
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On a Tuesday in January, employees at the Kah-Nee-Ta tribal casino undertook an arduous task: dismantling 300 slot machines in four hours, to be reassembled at the casino’s new temporary location about 10 miles away on Highway 26. “It was amazing,” says Ken Billingsley, manager of the Indian Head Casino, which is scheduled to open Feb. 4. Taking apart the machines was supposed to be at least a one-day project, says Billingsley. “But these people were all over it. Morale is sky high.”

The day after the dismantling, Billingsley and about a half dozen tribal leaders gathered at the construction site to discuss the reasons for moving the casino to its new location, across the highway from the Warm Springs Museum. The Kah-Nee-Ta gambling facility, which opened in 1995 and is now closed, was situated at the end of a long and winding road and generated about $3 million annually. The 40,000-square-foot temporary casino, almost twice the size of the original, is expected to generate about $12 million annually, along with 200 new jobs.

Despite the economic benefits, tribal members say the temporary casino is just that — a placeholder as the 5,040-member tribe continues to pursue a controversial off-reservation casino in Cascade Locks. An economic study commissioned by the tribe shows that Cascade Locks “is the best location to meet all the tribe’s needs,” says Deepak Sehgal, board chairman of Indian Head Casino. “We’re not taking our eyes off that.”

Like much of rural Oregon, the Confederated Tribes depended for many years on resource extraction; at its peak in the 1980s, an onsite mill produced 110 million board feet annually. The tribe’s focus on timber resources, as well as a conservative leadership style, caused Warm Springs “to miss the curve” when it came to tribal gaming opportunities, says Olney “JP” Patt Jr., a council member. Tribal leaders made the dubious decision to site the Kah-Nee-Tah casino in a remote location; they also missed a key 1988 deadline to purchase tribal trust land in Cascade Locks, a move that might have facilitated construction of the proposed venue in the Columbia River Gorge.