Against all odds

A tribal casino in Medford is probably years away — if it happens at all

No one should get too excited by the prospect of an Indian casino opening in Medford anytime soon. If the experience of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is any guide, the plans of the Coquille Indian Tribe to open a casino on South Pacific Highway may never happen at all.

The Coquille tribe recently purchased the former Kim's restaurant and Roxy Ann Lanes and agreed to lease Bear Creek Golf Course. The tribe plans to start the process of placing the land in a U.S. government trust that eventually could qualify it as reservation land that could be used for a tribal casino.

The operative word there is "eventually."

Coquille leaders say the process could take three years. That may be overly optimistic.

The Warm Springs tribes started that process in 2000 on land they purchased in the Columbia Gorge. A dozen years later, the tribes were close to gaining the federal approval needed, but still faced stiff opposition from local residents, other Indian tribes and Gov. John Kitzhaber, who had the final say. In January of this year, the Port of Cascade Locks let its agreement with the tribes expire, leaving the tribes with no option to purchase land and effectively killing the project.

Kitzhaber's policy toward Indian casinos, dating back to his first stint as governor, is that each tribe should be allowed one casino on reservation land.

The Coquille tribe already operates The Mill Casino in North Bend; the Warm Springs tribes had a casino at the Kah-Nee-Ta resort and later replaced it with the Indian Head Casino on Highway 26 to take advantage of traffic.

The Cow Creek Umpqua tribe, which operates Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville, Oregon's first tribal gambling center, has already expressed opposition to the Coquille tribe's plans. Not only do the Cow Creeks see a Medford casino as unwelcome competition, they dispute the Coquilles' claim that Medford lies within that tribe's territory.

The Coquille tribe's plans are nowhere near as grand as the Warm Springs venture. No hotel is planned, and the casino would be a Class II operation, limited to slots and other machines. Seven Feathers and The Mill are Class III operations, including craps, blackjack and roulette, and feature resort hotels.

Whether a casino makes sense for Medford is not about the morality of gambling. That question was settled years ago with the creation of the Oregon Lottery. A well-operated casino would pose no more problems — and probably less — than the ubiquitous Purple Parrot and Lumpy's storefronts found throughout the Medford area.

But gaining federal and state approval of a second casino operated by a single tribe, in the face of opposition from an established tribal casino, is a long shot if we ever saw one.

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