Casino gets no dice from business groups

GVCC and ICC support an alternative to build a business park

"For or against?" That was the question asked by a casino opponent to attendees as they walked in the door of last week’s public hearings where citizens were allowed to offer testimony on the draft environmental impact statement of the Cowlitz Tribe’s proposed project.

Two county business groups who have been sitting on the fence finally answered the question.

The Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, the county’s largest business organization, and Identity Clark County, an organization with a focus on the area’s economy, took similar positions. Both organizations have opposed the tribe’s plans for a casino on 152 acres at the La Center interchange and supported an alternative to build a business park on the site as studied in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Six alternatives were presented in the DEIS prepared by Analytical Environmental Services. Alternatives A, B and C are all different variations of a casino project, with A being the tribe’s preferred alternative. Alternative D looked at the possibility of a business park, and E considered "no action."

The preferred casino project calls for 134,000 square feet of gaming space, 355,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, 148,000 square feet of convention and multi-purpose space and a 250-room hotel. Alternative D examined the build-out of a 1.5 million-square-foot business park at the proposed site. It would include a mix of office and light-industrial uses.

Based on findings in the DEIS, the GVCC and ICC concluded a business park would create higher-wage jobs, less crime and have fewer impacts on the environment, property values and traffic.

"The implications of gambling are not the type of economic development factors that we would choose to introduce in Clark County," said ICC Executive Director Ginger Metcalf.

The groups said a business park would not negatively affect existing business, but a casino would have a competitive tax-free advantage over existing gambling venues and retail and restaurant operations, for example. The DEIS estimates revenues at La Center’s four cardrooms could drop by as much as 61 percent.

It was found the casino would generate an average wage of $28,000 for more than 3,000 employees and a total annual payroll of $88,135,000, and a business park would have an average annual wage of $49,000 for nearly 3,000 employees and total annual payroll of $146,605,000.

That is assuming, however, that the business park is fully built out and occupied.

"It will take longer," said GVCC President John McKibbin about developing a business park. "It’s not the same type of rapid build-up. That is a downside for the Cowlitz."

Alternative A would generate $415 million in revenue annually, and while the DEIS did not specify annual revenue for alternative D, it said it would be "significantly less" and "would not meet the economic needs of the tribe." The DEIS also said a tribal business park would be at a competitive disadvantage due to restrictions such as tribal employment preferences and Bureau of Indian Affairs lease approval for tenants.

Construction costs would be $510 million for the preferred casino option and would employ 4,000 workers versus a cost of $127 million for construction of the business park that would employ 1,000 workers.

Cowlitz Tribal Council member Phil Harju said the tribe is committed to going forward with alternative A. The tribe has entered into binding contracts and made agreements with local organizations and jurisdictions they intend to honor and invested a considerable amount of time, money and energy into the project, he said.

"The business organizations are recommending something that would not be good for the tribe," said Harju. "We are choosing the best option for the tribe and Clark County. Any private business would do the same thing."

Both organizations are concerned with impacts the casino project would have on traffic, particularly along the Interstate 5 corridor and the Interstate Bridge.

The DEIS found a business park would generate more weekday trips than a casino, 16,829 and 13,600, respectively. And rush hour trips would also be greater for a business park. The GVCC and ICC said these findings are inaccurate.

"A number of items (in the DEIS) are very suspect," said McKibbin, "transportation among them."

The groups are particularly concerned about impacts to bridge traffic. The majority of trips for a business park will originate from within Clark County, said McKibbin, but casino patrons will travel across the bridge from Oregon. The DEIS indicated 82 percent, the majority of the casino’s customer base, would come from Oregon.

Metcalf agreed the study inadequately addressed traffic impacts. McKibbin said the DEIS "needs a lot of work" before the final version is released. The GVCC and ICC submitted their findings to the BIA to be taken into consideration for the final draft.

Harju said the DEIS is "an extensive document that has reviewed all of the environmental impacts."

The tribe will be "submitting extensive written comments" to the BIA as well, he said.

The BIA will accept written comments through July 14. A decision on taking the proposed site into trust on Cowlitz Tribe’s behalf won’t occur until 2007.