Reshaping La Center to attract businesses, jobs and homes

Crews hope to finish road work by spring 2017, around the same time ilani is scheduled to open

La Center Aerial view
Courtesy of City of La Center

When measured in cost, jobs and potential long-term impact, the ongoing construction of the $500 million ilani casino and freeway interchange at the La Center Junction is one of the biggest projects in Clark County’s history.

The literal sounds of work at the site, 16 miles north of the Columbia River, are matched by the figurative sounds of exuberant expectation from many civic, business and local-government leaders.

The boosters say the two-pronged project of bringing a full-scale casino/entertainment resort plus new infrastructure to the area will improve traffic flow and utilities, and thus attract high-quality businesses, good jobs and more new homes.

The junction’s “strategic position along the I-5 corridor, the availability of developable land and continued investments in critical infrastructure all make Discovery Corridor well-positioned for significant growth,” said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

“Discovery Corridor” is an unofficial, promotional name for the 14-mile stretch of I-5 and from Salmon Creek to Woodland plus land on either side, most of it undeveloped.

“We look forward to working with all of our private and public partners in the Discovery Corridor … to continue the strategic planning and investment in infrastructure necessary to maximize the potential for future growth,” Bomar added.

Brent Grening, CEO of the Ridgefield Port District, which encompasses La Center Junction, said more ramps, a new overpass, traffic circles and wider approach roads at La Center are “an important piece of the transportation puzzle in (the) Discovery Corridor. We’ve got to have a transportation system that serves the population out here – the people and the freight.”

The expectation is that the improvements will not only facilitate traffic to and from the casino, but also attract new businesses to 150 acres of shovel-ready land in the La Center city limits immediately east of the freeway.

In addition to improvements to the I-5 interchange itself, other pieces of the infrastructure picture in the works or planning stage include a new sewer line to the junction replacing septic systems, new Clark Public Utilities (CPU) water wells in the area and a new CPU power substation nearby.

Taken together, they will mean “redundant sewer, water and power, which is perfect for industrial and commercial development,” said La Center Public Works Director Jeff Sarvis. He said the city “has been working toward developing the junction area for more than 10 years.”

The freeway work has a high-priority target date for completion in spring 2017 when the casino is scheduled to open, attracting gamblers from the Vancouver-Portland area and beyond. According to one unconfirmed report, April 17 is the penciled-in date.

Not without concern

Along with visions of new commercial and industrial players bringing family-wage jobs and paying taxes, there are serious concerns, at least in the short term.

It is widely assumed the casino’s opening will mean an immediate and substantial blow to the City of La Center’s revenue. For years, La Center has counted on its 10 percent tax on gross gambling revenue from its card rooms.

This year, the city is projecting gambling taxes from the three card rooms of $3.26 million. That’s 75 percent of a projected total operating revenue of $4.36 million.

It’s anybody’s guess how hard hit the card rooms will be once doors open to the full-scale casino and entertainment resort two miles away. The new facility is 510,000 square feet in size, including 100,000 square feet of gaming space plus a 2,500-seat entertainment venue, conference space, restaurants, offices, etc.

La Center Mayor Greg Thornton told the Vancouver Business Journal this week, “We expect at least a 60 percent decrease in revenue” unless and until new tax-paying businesses are attracted to the city.

No one interviewed for this story claimed knowledge of any business currently considering a move to La Center.

Concern is also voiced by some who fear the development is getting ahead of planning for all aspects of life in and near Discovery Corridor.
“We haven’t really looked far enough in advance for how all the pieces in the development of Discovery Corridor will fit together,” said Bridget Schwarz of the Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association.

To that end, the association and the Middle Class Alliance sponsored a roundtable discussion Tuesday about the area’s future. Political leaders and officials of local governments, school districts, business organizations, the Cowlitz Tribe and others were invited.

“It’s not enough for each government (cities, Clark County, the Ridgefield Port District, school districts, the Cowlitz Tribe) to have their own plan,” Schwarz said. They and residents “are all connected and have to be prepared for growth coming at a very fast pace.”

Junction construction

Meanwhile, work at and around the I-5 interchange continues apace.

Trucks are delivering building and construction supplies and materials. Earth-moving equipment is rearranging the landscape. Workers and more equipment are building new overpass, ramps, adjacent roads and traffic circles. Scores of plumbers, electricians, carpenters and others are at work inside the casino. In all, as many as 300 people might be working at the casino, interchange and adjacent roads on a given day.

The cost of the interchange improvements and new adjacent roads is estimated at $32 million, paid by the Cowlitz Tribe of Washington and its ilani casino partner, the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut. That cost is part of the total $510 million estimated cost over time for all phases of the casino-resort project, including a hotel thought to be two or three years away.

The tribes are also financing an extension of La Center’s sewer lines from the city center, two miles away, to the I-5 junction, where commercial and industrial development are the goal. Businesses and homes in that area now are on septic systems.

Freeway access crucial

In the past six years, major improvements have been made at other I-5 interchanges in the Discovery Corridor: The Ridgefield Junction and in Salmon Creek at 139th Street.

Like Ridgefield Port Director Brent Grening, Ridgefield City Manager Steve Stuart says freeway on/off ramps, access roads and overpasses built for future growth are crucial for attracting business and industry.

“Ridgefield presents a blueprint for job growth that could occur at and around the La Center interchange,” Stuart said.

The Ridgefield interchange project, which kicked off in 2010, “took a rural interchange and created 50 years of capacity,” he said. “That has done a great job of spurring job growth. [So] we are supportive of what the tribe has done.”

Without the investment in the interchange by the tribes, Stuart noted, the La Center interchange wouldn’t be able to handle the 15,000-20,000 daily trips to the casino-resort.

Besides, he added, “These are potential visitors to the (Ridgefield) wildlife refuge, our downtown and waterfront, and could mean more development of our industrial property.”

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