Stanley "Buck" Smith (left), tribal chairman for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and Louis Pitt, the tribe's director of government affairs and planning, have been lobbying for a casino in Cascade Locks for nearly a decade. // PHOTO BY ANTHONY PIDGEON
BY BEN JACKLET
The signs of the economic times are impossible to ignore as Louis Pitt and Bernard Seeger roll from one end of Cascade Locks to the other, past the high school that recently shut down, the housing development that has stumbled into foreclosure and the lumber mill that has laid off its workforce indefinitely.
At first glance the two men seem an odd couple. Pitt, the director of government affairs and planning for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, is a hulking but soft-spoken Native American with long, dark hair and a deep, easy laugh. Seeger, city administrator for Cascade Locks, is a wiry, intense West Point graduate who runs the Pacific Crest Trail for recreation when he isn’t trying to run a city on limited resources. Pitt chuckles at the notion of running for fun; he prefers golf. But in spite of their completely different heritages and personalities, the two men share a strong conviction that a new casino in the Columbia River Gorge would do wonders for their constituencies, and for Oregon’s ailing economy.
Web-only content: More on Oregon Gambling
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|Economic analysis of Indian gaming by ECONorthwest|
|Cascade Locks casino Environmental Impact Statement|
|Cowlitz casino Environmental Impact Statement|
Competing studies regarding impact of Wood Village Casino on lottery retailers
At the far end of town they reach their destination: 25 acres of grass and oak trees next to the highway, a former lumber mill zoned light industrial. Nine million cars drive past this location each year. This is where the Warm Springs and Cascade Locks have been trying for nearly a decade to build a new tribal casino within 45 minutes of downtown Portland. They say the project would bring 400 construction jobs, 1,700 year-round jobs, $850 million for college scholarships, and $85 million for environmental restoration and economic development in the Columbia River Gorge — not to mention a road to economic self-sufficiency for the tribe and a ticket out of post-timber small-town depression for Cascade Locks. After years of opposition and delays, they recently earned preliminary approval from the federal government, and a final “record of decision” could come any day.
At least that’s how Seeger and Pitt prefer to see it. “We’ve been beating on this dog for so long,” says Seeger. “There’s not a flea left on it.”“We’re getting real close,” adds Pitt. “If this were a football game we’d be in the two-minute drill.”
But time could be running out. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Gorge remain steadfast against the casino, as do competing tribes and, perhaps most significantly, both candidates for governor. The jackpot is undeniably lucrative, but the odds are long for anyone hoping to change Oregon’s gambling status quo. And the Warm Springs and Cascade Locks are not the only players angling for radical changes.
A pair of Lake Oswego businessmen have partnered with a Las Vegas consultant and a Canadian investment firm in a bid to turn an abandoned former dog track in Wood Village into a $500 million casino and entertainment center, with rooftop gardens and an indoor/outdoor water park along with more slot machines than the largest casinos in Las Vegas. Also in the game is the Cowlitz tribe, which is working to set up a reservation anchored by a huge casino in La Center, Wash., backed by one of the wealthiest gaming tribes in the nation, the Mohegans.
Opposing all three of these projects are two entities that have grown exponentially as a direct result of gambling money: the Grand Ronde tribe and the state-run Oregon Lottery. Both these players are under heavy pressure to keep the money flowing into programs such as tribal health care clinics and public schools, and the last thing they need in a faltering economy is new competition closer to the state’s dominant financial center. That’s a change that few in state government would welcome, with budget shortfalls already requiring huge spending cuts. Both Republican Chris Dudley and Democrat John Kitzhaber have declared their opposition to the Warm Springs deal, meaning the stakes are high for the tribe to make something happen quickly in Cascade Locks. Indeed, the stakes are high for all of the players vying to develop a casino close to Portland.