State of Oregon agrees to off-reservation casino

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CASCADE LOCKS, Ore. Somehow the Bridge of the Gods just won't go away.
First a natural blockage of the Columbia River that inspired all sorts of
legends, then a man-made bridge ... and now the proposed name of the
state's first off-reservation casino that the Confederated Tribes of the
Warm Springs Reservation hopes to build on the river.

The Warm Springs originally planned to build an architecturally tasteful
casino on a 175-acre strip of tribal land further upriver in the Columbia
River Gorge near the town of Hood River. Outcry from the conservation
community, though, moved Gov. Ted Kulongoski to roll up his sleeves and sit
down with tribal officials.

The Warm Springs turned the title to the Hood River parcel over to the
state and agreed to contribute 17 percent of their gambling proceeds to
state programs. In return, the governor signed off on the Bridge of the
Gods deal, a site in the town of Cascade Locks that sits at the perimeter
of the scenic area.

If the Department of Interior approves the arrangement, the Warm Springs
will build a 500,000-square-foot facility to house a casino with 1,800
video gambling terminals, conference center, museum, hotel and enough
parking for almost 4,000 vehicles.

Compared to Oregon's largest tribal casino - the Grand Ronde tribe's Spirit
Mountain, which has 90,000 square feet of casino gaming and earned profits
of $77 million in 2003 - the Bridge of the Gods Casino, if approved by
Interior Secretary Gale Norton, would be a considerable boon to the Warm
Springs.

While the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute people originally controlled a
10-million-acre territorial base, in the 1850s they were relegated to
600,000 acres of high desert land on the eastern slope of Mt. Hood, well
out of the way of settlers streaming down the Columbia and into the
Willamette Valley.

The tribe built Kah-Nee-Ta Resort near some hot springs in 1964 and added a
casino in 1996. It also operates a successful timber operation, for which
it received the Forest Stewardship Council stamp of environmental approval
in 2003.

In 2001 it launched Warm Springs Ventures, an economic development
corporation. To date, Ventures acquisitions include two ceramic tile
companies, Kibak and Sea Lane, as well as Cort Directions, a provider of
payroll and human resources management software.

Still, poverty marks the Warm Springs situation and that of many of its
4,400 members. A 50 percent unemployment rate, combined with high rates of
substance abuse and its attendant miseries, are entrenched and persistent
tragedies. An exceptionally-lucrative casino on the Columbia River - just a
40-minute interstate drive from Portland - could turn these statistics
around.

Said Rudy Clements, director of tribal relations, "Kah-Nee-Ta nets about $4
million annually, and we need a lot more than that to operate our
government and meet peoples' needs."

The town of Cascade Locks is as eager for federal approval as the tribe. It
has gladly accepted the tribe's interest in purchasing a tract of land in
the town's industrial park and looks forward to the casino's $20 million
freeway interchange for which the tribe has agreed to pay.

"We're tourism-based now, and that base is the 100 days of summer," said
city administrator Bob Willoughby. "In the 1950s we had 90 businesses here.
Now we have about 19, and many of them have been up for sale."

Not everyone is happy about the idea of Bridge of the Gods Casino, however.
Columbia Gorge conservationists, for one, still find the proposed operation
too close for comfort.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge conservation director Michael Lang said, "It
threatens air quality. It threatens water quality. And it threatens the
very protection of the natural scenic area and its stunning resources. We
don't support turning the gorge into a mecca for casino gamblers."

In addition, as an Oregonian editorial put it, "Leaders of the Grand Ronde,
who run Oregon's most lucrative casino, have ignored a long history of
tribal courtesies and actively sought to block the Warm Springs from the
gorge."

Spirit Mountain Casino is 62 miles from Portland, so its leaders fear
competition from the Bridge of the Gods upon its construction. The tribes
and others contend that this unprecedented move to permit an
off-reservation casino simply opens the door to the state's other tribes.

"It looks pretty clear we're expanding gaming in Oregon," said a Grand
Ronde lobbyist Justin Martin. "Grand Ronde will look at all options now
that we are seeing a change in current policy and off-reservation casinos
becoming a reality."

Not so, said Kulongowski, who maintained that the deal was orchestrated
because the Warm Springs tribe planned to move ahead on its exceptionally
well-sited acreage in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area if the
state didn't negotiate. "Read the compact. There are all sorts of
conditions set in there about why we did this, and it's a pretty high bar
to get across," he said. "I am not anticipating it's going to happen again
for a while."

The idea that Bridge of the Gods will bring much-needed monies into state
coffers and provide educational opportunities for tribal and non-tribal
citizens wasn't lost on the governor.

"That is what we put together to protect the environment, to grow the
future of Oregon which is our children, and at the same time look out for
growing the economy and improving the quality of life for the people of
this community," Kulongowski said. "This represents the best of this
community. We are all Oregon. We are all one people."

Whether Norton signs off on the deal remains to be seen.

Currently there are 20 off-reservation casinos in the nation. Given this
well-established precedent, the powers that be in the tribe, Cascade Locks
and the state capitol are hoping that Bridge of the Gods Casino will take
its place on the roster and provide the economic boost all three entities
badly need.