Here comes ilani: Casino ready to open its doors

The economic impact of the new casino/resort is expected to be felt across the region

Ilani Casino

The $510 million casino from the Cowlitz Tribe, the ilani Casino Resort (pronounced ay-lah-nay, meaning “sing” in the Cowlitz language), will open its doors to the public on Monday, April 24 at 10 a.m. The casino is financed primarily by the Mohegan tribe, based in Southeast Connecticut, according to ilani President and GM Kara Fox-LaRose, a Mohegan tribal member and former lawyer.

While the casino is located between La Center and Ridgefield, in northern Clark County, its economic trickle-down effect into Southwest Washington and the rest of the state could be significant.

The 368,000-square-foot casino is situated within a 152-acre parcel the Cowlitz Tribe was granted for their reservation. 16 miles north of Vancouver, off Exit 16 (Interstate 5), the casino features 100,000 square feet of gaming space with 2,500 slot machines and 75 gaming tables – blackjack, roulette, midi baccarat, craps and pai gow poker. The resort features three retail shops, 3,000 parking spots and a shuttle service.

Visitors to ilani will have their choice of 15 different restaurants. Among them are The Butcher + Baker, with sandwiches, salads, subs and soup; Chef Jet, modern Asian cuisine; Smashburger, with burgers, sandwiches and salad; and i.talia, with Italian-style pizzas, entrée-style salads, fresh pasta and sandwiches. The restaurant line-up also includes Rose & Thorn, a high-end bar and restaurant; Longhouse, a sushi and noodle shop; Michael Jordan’s Steak House; and Line & Lure Seafood Kitchen and Tap.

Additionally, ilani will introduce two entertainment settings: 360 Bar and Muze. Described as “the heartbeat of the property,” 360 Bar is “a great place to kick off the evening or celebrate over craft cocktails.” For a more intimate setting, Muze will offer live performances of some of today’s hottest acts.

Projections are 4.5 million visitors per year, or more than an average of 12,000 people a day. Spectrum Gaming Group (an independent research firm), which generated an economic market study on gambling (2016) for the Washington State Gambling Commission, found that “90 percent of Washington adults reside within a reasonable one-hour drive of a Washington Class III casino,” and 99 percent reside within a 2-hour drive.

“Regional attractions, such as the new ilani Casino Resort, play an important part in the travel decision-making process for leisure travelers and meeting planners alike,” noted Kim Bennett, president and CEO of Visit Vancouver USA. “Destinations that feature the right mix of homegrown amenities and large-scale attractions maintain the best chance at capturing a larger share of the tourism market.”

Long-ranging benefits

The economic impact made by ilani is expected to go far beyond the benefits of increased tourism, 1,200 direct jobs and the 2 percent of annual net revenue that will go to Clark County. According to Spectrum, a significant part of the story is growth from indirect jobs, driven by the casino’s spending on goods and services – business-to-business sales – and by increased household spending in sectors such as healthcare and social assistance, accommodations and food services. Additionally, Spectrum reported that Washington casinos “also support a significant number of jobs in the retail trade, administrative/support, waste management and remediation services, and professional, scientific and technical services industries.”

Statewide, Spectrum projected that in 2016, 26 existing Class III Washington casinos would generate $2.39 billion in Gross Gaming Revenue (GGR), a 3 percent increase from 2015. With two new casinos opening (ilani and another casino in Spokane), projections in 2017 are $2.75 billion, and in the years through 2020, $3.3 billion, factoring in population and inflation, which translates to an 18.4 percent increase and 42.3 percent growth, respectively. Projected annual average economic contributions to the Washington economy from casinos (2015 to 2020) are: 38,768 jobs; employee income of $1,332,000; and direct and supply chain spending of $6,320,000.

Spectrum estimates that Washington’s Class III casinos this year will generate $265 million from out of state, with that percentage doubling by 2018, “reflecting primarily the opening of ilani.”

Oregon impact

Prior to ilani’s opening, Spirit Mountain, the Grand Ronde Casino, was the closest casino to the Portland Metro area. 61 miles away, it is Oregon’s busiest tourist attraction, drawing 3 million visitors every year. Located 1.5 hours from Portland, the major destination casino offers a 254-room hotel, 90,000 square feet of gaming floors and 2,000 slot machines. Other amenities include five restaurants, live entertainment in its 2,000-seat event center with stage, and a sports bar with 17 HD TVs.

But with Ilani now just 25 miles from Portland, Spirit Mountain could lose more than $100 million per year to the new casino.

Oregon Lottery retail locations may also be hit by proximity to the new casino. Oregon Lottery spokesman Chuck Baumann estimated a $110 million dip in lottery revenues, with the highest concentration of the loss in the Portland Metro area.

Baumann said Portland’s Oregon Lottery retailers will likely see a 40 to 50 percent cut in their video lottery business. And in the next five years, he said, the number of retailers offering that kind of entertainment could be cut in half. However, Baumann made the point that even though casinos and Oregon Lottery retailers offer some of the same entertainment, there’s an important difference: Casinos are a destination; venues with video lottery are more local – stop and have a beer.

Future plans

Though officials at ilani are focused on this month’s grand opening, plans are already in the works for future development at the site. In late fall, ilani will introduce a 2,500-seat meeting and entertainment venue offering flexible meeting space and nationally-recognized performances. A new hotel is also part of the resort’s future strategy, eventually connecting to the southeast side of the building.

“The addition of a hotel will certainly attract visitation from outer markets and allow guests to extend their visit,” said Fox-LaRose. “An increase in visitation and new consumers will contribute to tourism. The addition of a hotel will also increase jobs for both contractors and the hotel as well as create an increased demand for goods and services to support the hotel.”

In the meantime, Fox-LaRose said that ilani has built relationships with local hotels to accommodate the needs of guests in the event they would like to extend their visit.

As for the 150-acre parcel of reservation land across from the resort, one popular idea is an outdoor shopping area with restaurants, retail and viewpoints. However, development of the land is still on the table.

“[We are] currently working with the Cowlitz Tribe on a master plan for the reservation to determine the best use of the land as it pertains to the strategic initiatives of the tribe and the business,” said Fox-LaRose.

Update: This article has been corrected to remove references to Oregon card rooms.