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Grand Ronde tribe proposes stadium for urban casino deal

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Major League Baseball is trying to find a new home for the Montreal Expos and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde say they have a solution. However, Oregon's governor does not seem to like their terms.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski issued a statement saying that he is against amending a tribal/state gaming compact with the Grand Ronde tribe to build an off reservation casino in the city of Portland.

Under the terms of a deal that Grand Ronde pitched recently to the state of Oregon and city of Portland, the tribe would pick up the entire tab for a new baseball stadium only if they were allowed to open a second off-reservation casino in or near Portland.

A tribal spokesman for Grand Ronde claims to have only read the governor's comments in the press and says Kulongoski has yet to make his comments known to either the tribe or the city of Portland.

"This would have been a great situation for everyone, we bring Major League Baseball to Oregon and provide economic development for the tribe and Portland area," says Grand Ronde Spokesman Justin Martin.

The Grand Ronde tribe currently operates the lucrative Spirit Mountain casino about 65 miles southwest of Portland. Oregon currently has a gaming compact policy of one per tribal reservation.

Martin reports that the tribe's current "permanent" gaming compact with the state would have had to be changed in order to allow the tribe to build the proposed urban casino. Apparently Kulongoski has refused to make an exception in this case.

Martin says that under former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, this proposal would not even be on the table. Kitzhaber was known to be stringent about tribes adhering to the one casino condition of their compacts.

Although the rain still falls in abundance in the Pacific Northwest, the political climate has changed. Kitzhaber was termed out last year and has been replaced by Ted Kulongoski in January. Grand Ronde had hoped that new Gov. Kulongoski would be more favorable to the tribe.

Scott Ballo who works in the governor's press office says his boss did not follow the connection.

"This was a decision based on the fact that there was no reason to marry the two different things, in this case the baseball stadium and an urban casino," says Ballo. "One thing should not have anything to do with the other."

Martin responds that the governor has not informed the tribe or the city of Portland as to his decision. In statement issued by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde the tribe says the governor now leaves as "uncertain the state's position on off-reservation gaming."

The statement goes on the say that a stadium was only one way that an urban casino could benefit the city of Portland and cites their gifts totaling $20 million to local governments in Oregon.

Besides Gov. Kulongoski, the other governmental hurdle to the urban casino is the city of Portland itself. Sarah Bott, a spokeswoman for Portland mayor Vera Katz confirms that her boss had a meeting with Grand Ronde, but says the tribe has yet to make a formal proposal.

Bott says that the city has discussed the possibility as an "option" but has yet to make any decision on the matter.

"It's still premature, we (Katz' office) would like to discuss the issue further," said Bott.

However Katz would ultimately feel about the proposal the final decision would still be with the governor.

A poll of 600 Oregon voters published in the Portland Oregonian by Portland's Grove Insight showed that residents were evenly divided on the issue, with 45 percent both in favor and an equal number opposing, with 10 percent undecided.

However, the same poll also showed residents opposed gaming establishments in the Portland area by a 45 to 41 percent margin. The paper reports a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Another issue is the question whether Major League Baseball would allow one of its stadiums to be financed by gambling interests. Baseball has been very cautious over the years to keep gambling away from the game and at one point even banned former superstars Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from the game for post-baseball jobs they had glad handing customers at an Atlantic City casino.

Martin says that this situation is different. He points out that Grand Ronde is not trying to buy the team, but only finance the stadium. Several other stadiums currently in use are financed by lottery dollars, which Martin feels is more akin to tribal gaming operations than privately owned Las Vegas or Atlantic City casinos in that, given tribal sovereignty, tribal casinos are governmental operations.

This is far from a done deal and there are quite a few ifs attached to the proposal. The biggest if is whether or not the team would relocate to Portland. The Expos, along with the Minnesota Twins, were two teams that Major League Baseball considered for contraction last winter.

For years the Montreal Expos have played in a dingy, decrepit stadium built for the 1976 Summer Olympics. However its saucer-like look and Astro Turf field has not looked modern since Iran and not Iraq was the hot spot in the Middle East.

The Expos financial situation has deteriorated in recent years. The owner of team had fled to the Florida Marlins and the Expos were placed under the auspices of the other 29 Major League Baseball teams. In an attempt to stimulate revenue the team will actually play 22 of its 81 home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico this year.

Portland is one of three areas vying for the team, the others being Washington, D.C. and its Northern Virginia suburbs. Portland mayor Katz, and a relocation committee will be traveling to meet with Major League Baseball officials to make their case for the team.