I’ve been following the Cowlitz Tribe’s efforts to build a casino near the La Center I-5 junction since 2007. The saga has gone on almost twice that amount of time as the Tribe’s efforts have been stalled by opposition from several parties.
Because the story is more than a decade old with no apparent end in sight, those of us in the news business often choose not to bore you with every detail as it unfolds. Most residents of the area just want to know if and when the casino is going to be built – you know, show me the sausage, don’t show me how it was made.
The mechanisms of this effort have continued to move, albeit at a painfully slow pace. The City of La Center, with the Tribe’s help, has been working for more than a year on Comprehensive Plan amendments directed by the Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) in order to allow the city to re-enter into a sewer agreement with the Cowlitz Tribe. La Center and the Tribe previously reached a $14 million accord, but later revoked it when informed by the GMHB that an appeal would likely prevail.
La Center Mayor Jim Irish, and other city officials, are determined to be the sewer provider for the Cowlitz Tribe. That’s understandable since La Center has a sewer treatment facility with a $10 million debt and also because Irish and city officials are eager to extend the sewer to the I-5 junction in order to develop La Center’s own land there. We should know more later this year whether or not La Center’s Comprehensive Plan amendments are approved and if they were able to withstand appeal.
There’s also the pending appeal in federal court over whether or not the Cowlitz Tribe should be allowed to take its 152 acres near the La Center I-5 junction into trust. There still is no schedule for that court case, so it’s completion date is anyone’s guess. So, there remains a lot of unknowns in this process but that doesn’t keep developments from taking place.
In addition to the work to pave the way for the sewer agreement between La Center and the Tribe, the tribe – backed financially by the Connecticut-based Mohegan Tribe – is also working with the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) on a plan to reconstruct the La Center I-5 junction. Members of the La Center City Council were briefed on that progress at a recent workshop. The plan alone is a multi-million dollar effort.
The efforts by the tribe(s) show they believe they will ultimately prevail on all matters and the casino will eventually be built. They could be right. I think an oddsmaker would label them the favorite in the battle with their opponents. I don’t fault any of the tribe’s efforts. If they want to build a casino and they think they should be allowed to build it on their land at the La Center I-5 junction, more power to them.
What I’ve never understood is La Center’s actions on the matter. They just don’t make sense to me and never have. Let’s play this scenario out to the end so I can show you what I don’t understand.
The City of La Center has clearly aligned itself with the Cowlitz and Mohegan tribes on this effort. The Reflector recently made a public records request of the city, which produced an invoice showing the Mohegan Tribe paid the city $40,000 to be used for the development of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Also, Irish recently testified on the tribe’s behalf in front of the Washington State Gambling Commission and he also instructed the city last year to file an Amicus brief on the tribe’s behalf in the federal case. There is no longer any question as to the intentions of Irish and city officials. They are doing everything they can to assist the tribe’s efforts to build its casino.
La Center has four existing cardrooms that are taxed by the city at a rate of 10 percent of revenues. That puts more than $3 million a year into La Center’s general budget, or about two-thirds of the city’s annual revenues. Irish has long said the construction of the tribe’s casino doesn’t mean the end to the La Center cardrooms. The cardrooms know that’s not the case.
“If the Cowlitz casino were to gain final approval and be built at the La Center junction, it would have a very significant impact upon our community,’’ said John Bockmier, a consultant who represents the La Center cardrooms. “It would also create an extremely difficult environment for any of the four cardrooms of La Center to continue their operation.’’
Bockmier went on to state all the reasons why the cardrooms would be at a competitive disadvantage and closed with, “it’s not a question of being able to compete, it’s a question of how long you can survive.’’
If the cardrooms don’t survive, how does the City of La Center replace two-thirds of its annual revenue? Irish says that will be done by the development of the city’s land at the I-5 junction. But, the city has no study or projections as to what it can generate at the junction and reasonable indicators suggest it won’t be anywhere close to $3 million a year.
Unfortunately, private companies don’t have to disclose any of their sales information, including sales tax collected, according to the Department of Revenue. When the City of Woodland was preparing for the arrival of its Walmart, former Mayor Chuck Blum told The Reflector that it would generate about $25,000 per month of revenue for the city. I have recently been told that projection was a little optimistic.
For the sake of conversation, let’s just go with the $25,000 per month figure as an example. La Center would have to have the equivalent of 10 Walmarts developed at the junction to match the $3 million in revenue it would lose if the cardrooms closed.
Remember, the city would not receive any revenue from the Cowlitz casino. There was a time when La Center officials were hopeful the tribe would generously reimburse the city for lost revenue from the cardrooms, at least for a few years. Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall told me himself that the tribe had no reason to do that.
Over the years, I have asked virtually every council member and the mayor how La Center would replace the lost revenue if the Cowlitz casino were to force the cardrooms out of business. I have still yet to hear any reasonable explanation. Yes, the city has $16 million in its reserve fund, but it also has the $10 million in debt on a sewer that doesn’t pay for itself.
La Center residents really need to ask themselves how will life be like in the city when that $3 million in cardroom revenue no longer exists?