The business of gambling: Some could stand to profit from proposed casino

The proposed Cowlitz casino near La Center could create a rift in the business community, as many oppose it and others stand to benefit

It’s a gamble when it comes to predicting the impact a large tribal gaming facility would have on the local economy and business community. Some say the casino proposed near La Center could detract from surrounding businesses, while others could benefit from partnering with the tribe or providing services to the casino’s employees and customers.

While much of the opposition is centered on the tribe’s historical connection to the area and the social impacts of gambling, it also could mean win or lose for many Southwest Washington businesses.

Opportunity knocks

Those who stand to benefit directly are local businesses that could provide services to a completed casino, such as beverage distributors or transportation companies.

"If it becomes the size they are planning to put together, it would definitely impact my business in a real positive way," said Kathy Frazier, owner of Frazier Benefits Group.

Frazier hopes to provide benefits to employees of the casino. Frazier, a member of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe on the Washington coast, has spoken with the tribe but has yet to secure business with them. She expects the casino could create opportunities for many businesses.

"The Cowlitz have done everything possible to handle this the right way," said Frazier. "Nobody who opens up a business wants a negative impact on the community."

Kevin Malone owns Vancouver Shuttle, which transports individuals or groups on a reservation basis. He said the possibility of offering transportation services to and from the casino could be a boost to his business.

"There is nothing preventing me from putting up ads saying we will be at a certain place at a certain time," he said.

Other businesses declined to talk about the project for fear of alienating business clients and prospects.

La Center’s four card rooms, which provide the bulk of the city’s tax revenue, have opposed the Cowlitz’ casino plans from the beginning, fearing the loss of its customer base, which could be a detriment to the city’s coffers.

David Barnett, Cowlitz spokesman and casino developer, and the Mohegan Tribe from Connecticut, who are partnering with the Cowlitz, contend the casino will not only be an economic engine for the Cowlitz, but for the surrounding communities as well.

"Other than the card rooms in La Center, which I believe would benefit from a working relationship with the tribe, I think most businesses will prosper from a relationship with the tribe and a casino," he said.

On a recent trip to Clark County, leaders from the Mohegan tribe said businesses have thrived and property values soared in communities surrounding their Mohegan Sun Casino near Uncasville, Conn.

"We are bringing customers to their front door," said Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority CEO William Velardo. "There is no evidence of cannibalization; that is a very fashionable argument."

Unfair competition

Many businesses say the casino will draw patrons from surrounding restaurants, card rooms, hotels and retail locations.

The Woodland Chamber of Commerce has officially opposed the casino. Darlene Johnson, chamber treasurer and legislative chair, said Woodland businesses could not compete against a tribal casino not subject to the same taxes as a non-tribal business.

"One of the big issues is that all of the promises the Cowlitz make pale in comparison to what a non-Indian business would have to pay," said Johnson.

The Cowlitz Tribe has said it will compensate state, county and local districts in lieu of taxes for services provided. Johnson said contributions will not be equitable and create an unfair advantage for the casino.

"To think a casino would bring traffic to eat at (Woodland eatery) The Oak Tree Restaurant is ludicrous," said Johnson. "I can say with confidence that no business in Woodland would benefit."

The Cowlitz Casino expects to dedicate 210,000 square feet of space to restaurant and retail business, and businesses will have the opportunity to lease much of that space, said Velardo.

Plans also include 160,000 square feet of gaming floor, a 250-room hotel, parking structures, an RV park as well as tribal facilities, offices and housing on the 152-acre proposed reservation site.

Project cost at full build-out is estimated at more than $400 million.

And once the project is completed, more than 3,000 jobs paying an average of nearly $30,000 annually plus benefits will be created, said Barnett. Barnett acknowledges there will be many employees who make much more than that and many who will make much less.

Done deals

The tribe has entered into an agreement with Clark College to train casino employees. Lisa Pletcher, executive dean of workforce development for Clark College, said the college neither supports nor opposes the casino proposal.

"We are committed to serving all businesses in the community," she said. "And we recognize the business operations of the tribe. They have very specific job goals and training needs, and we want to bring that training to Southwest Washington."

Given the size of the project, Pletcher expects the casino would draw employees from a large area, perhaps from Kelso to Portland. Under the agreement, Clark College will provide skills development for a range of occupations, including casino management, computer specialist, security guard and fitness trainer.

The Southwest Washington Convention and Visitors
Bureau has taken a neutral stance on the project, but like Clark College, has negotiated an agreement with the tribe early on to maximize its partnership.

"We do recognize that if the Casino is approved and built, it is in the best interest of the hospitality industry to work together to market and promote the area to visitors," said President Kim Bennett.

Bennett said the SWCVB Board entered into a "cooperation agreement" with the Cowlitz Tribe whereby they will voluntarily agree to pay the current Tourism Promotion Area fee of $2 per occupied bed to the SWCVB for the same marketing benefits Clark County hotels currently receive.

Bennett said the casino would likely create added tourism value to the area.

"Generally speaking, a casino generates increased tourism and provides local jobs," said Bennett. "Many of the meetings we bring into town inquire as to whether we have a nearby casino and gaming, and it is often seen as an added attraction for convention delegates, thereby increasing the association’s registration."

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