Supporters of a Cascade Locks casino, from left to right: Chuck Daughtry (Port of Cascade Locks), Chief of the Warm Springs Delvis Heath Sr., Chief of the Paiute Joe Moses, Scott Moses (tribal council member, Seekseequa district), Reuben Henry (tribal council member, Seekseequa), Smith, Pitt and Tim Lee (Port of Cascade Locks). // PHOTO BY ANTHONY PIDGEON
The Warm Springs are one of four tribes with treaty fishing rights on the Columbia River, and while fishing hasn’t brought them much prosperity in recent years, it is increasingly valuable as salmon runs improve. But salmon money is nothing compared to the value of a casino next to a major interstate, a short drive from Portland. “This is the means for us to rebuild our economy, our way,” says Pitt. “People keep telling us what we should do with our land. They say ‘build a museum.’ Well we built a museum on the reservation. It was a loser. We’re not in business to go broke.”
Census figures show that there is no community in Oregon more in need of economic rebuilding than the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Per capita income on the reservation is less than half the national average. The college graduation rate is about one-fifth that of the rest of the nation. Nearly three times as many families live in poverty as in the rest of the country. The community has no local high school, saddling teenagers with a tedious daily bus ride to and from Madras that contributes to an already high dropout rate.
The numbers tell a different but similarly grim story in Cascade Locks. With more than 100 acres of vacant property in an industrial area once humming with timber jobs, the entire assessed value of the city adds up to $68 million, Seeger says. That results in just $168,000 per year in property taxes. “I can’t run a city on $168,000,” he says. Fortunately for him, the city also runs the utilities, which bring in enough revenue to keep the lights on — barely. The city can only afford to fund local police protection for 24 hours per week.
Pitt is only half-joking when he suggests that there should also be a fourth tribe under the Warm Springs banner in addition to the Warm Springs, the Wasco and the Paiute: the Cascade Locks. “It’s unbelievable how poorly these guys get treated in the Gorge,” he says. “They’re like second-class citizens, and we know all about that.”
Unlike other former timber towns, Cascade Locks has identified a way out of poverty. “We’re talking about 1,700 permanent jobs,” says Seeger. “That would triple our population. And this isn’t a project that’s going to be outsourced to India or China. The tribe is going to be here forever.”
After years of roadblocks, there’s a sense of momentum in Cascade Locks following the completion of the Final Environmental Impact Statement in August. A large sign in the center of town reads, “Welcome Warm Springs. Welcome jobs.” A carload of curious tourists pulls up as Pitt and Seeger tour the property and wishes them luck with getting the casino approved. On the business side, Pitt says the Warm Springs have entered into discussions with investors eager to back the project once it gets federal approval. Howard Arnett, a Bend attorney who has been representing the tribe since 1980, says, “I feel better about our chances than I have in a long time…We’ve cleared every hurdle.”
But more hurdles may lie ahead. Justin Martin, a Grand Ronde tribal member and lobbyist who is working to block the Cascade Locks deal, says the Warm Springs still have a long ways to go before building a new casino. “They’ve reached the end of the beginning of the process,” he says. “That’s it.”