An architect's sketch of the proposed Cascade Locks casino, which would feature 2,000 slots, 70 gambling tables and a 250-room hotel just off I-84. // ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF WALSCH BISHOP
Justin Martin was 13 years old in 1983 when the Grand Ronde tribe won back recognition from the federal government after having been “terminated” as a federal tribe in 1954. He remembers his mother being jazzed about the news, but he had no premonition of how significantly it would alter his life and his community until he went in October 1995 to visit what he assumed was the tribe’s new bingo hall, only to be blown away by the magnitude of the Spirit Mountain Casino. In the 15 years since, Martin has earned an advanced degree from Harvard and built a powerful lobbying business in Salem, and the Grand Ronde have grown to more than 5,000 members who receive free health care, scholarships and even per capita annual payments from casino profits.
Tribes are not required to release detailed financial information to the public, but a recent report by two economists hired by Oregon tribes offers a window into a lucrative industry. Robert Whelan and Alec Josephson of ECONorthwest found that Oregon’s tribal casinos employed 5,614 people in 2008 and generated nearly $1.64 billion in economic output on revenues of $577.6 million.
Given that Spirit Mountain contains about a third of the tribal gaming machines statewide and is the closest casino to Portland, it’s safe to estimate that the Grand Ronde tribe earns about $200 million per year in net revenues at Spirit Mountain (total sales minus complimentary goods and services given away). Since setting up the casino the Grand Ronde tribe has earned more than $833 million in gaming profits (amount bet minus payouts).
But Martin is quick to point out that “12 or 13 years of economic success don’t come close to fixing the problems of the past 150 years.” True, unemployment and alcohol and drug addiction rates have improved among tribal members, he says. But they are still worse than the national averages. In addition, there’s no guarantee that the cash cow that has brought the tribe its recent prosperity will continue producing.
The Grand Ronde face increased competition from the state and constant demands to continue funding expensive tribal programs and to pay for a recent slew of ambitious upgrades at the casino. “Just like any other government we’re facing problems with how to fund our programs,” says Martin. “It’s been a challenge. We’re under pressure to pay off debts.”
Still, unlike other tribal casinos in more rural areas and larger players in the business, the Grand Ronde have not been forced to lay off workers. They employ 1,500 people at Spirit Mountain, and ubiquitous transit and billboard ads in Portland boast that the Spirit Mountain Community Fund has generated more than $50 million for worthy projects.
Bruce Studer, the Lake Oswego financier who came up with the idea for Oregon’s first non-tribal casino, is unimpressed with that figure. “They’ve done $50 million in their entire history,” he says. “We would do $150 million a year.”