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A casino of controversy?

Around 80 people packed a steamy meeting room Thursday night to voice their concerns or support for a proposed Indian casino that could be built on South Pacific Highway in Medford.

The Medford City Council did not make a decision on whether to support the Coquille Indian Tribe's proposal for a casino within city limits.

Instead, the council remained mostly silent throughout the hearing, opting to absorb hours of public comment on the controversial plan.

The hearing became feisty at times, with Medford residents and members of neighboring Indian tribes calling foul on the Coquille for wanting to open a gambling business.

Among the first speakers was Dan Courtney, the chairman of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. This tribe runs the Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville.

"The Cow Creek have ancient rights to this area as well as a modern presence," Courtney said.

Several representatives from the Cow Creek Band lambasted the Coquille for what they say is an unethical encroaching on their rightful area.

In addition, Betty Hall of the Shasta Nation described the Coquille as "interlopers" who are extending well beyond their territory.

The Coquille have asked the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to place 2.42 acres in south Medford in a government trust.

This begins a process that could lead to reservation status for the site. The Coquille also have asked the federal Office of Indian Gaming Management for an exception to a prohibition on gaming on lands acquired after October 1988.

In September 2012, the Coquille tribe announced it had purchased the Roxy Ann Lanes bowling alley and the former Kim's Restaurant in hopes of opening a Medford casino along South Pacific Highway.

Sara Koca of Medford said the Coquille would be a benefit to Medford. She worked for the tribe's Mill Casino in Coos Bay for three years.

"I welcome the Coquille tribe to my community and neighborhood," she said. "I know they will be contributors to the economy and overall well-being of this valley."

Koca said the tribe treated its employees well and crime was never an issue in and around the casino.

"I never had any problems there and I worked overnight," she said.

The possibility of crime increasing because of a casino was on the minds of some speakers Thursday night.

William A. Mansfield of Medford pointed out a story in Thursday's Mail Tribune about a man suspected of attacking a local bartender earlier this week. Police allege the man was angry over losing $600 in video lottery machines.

"This is an example of the seamy side of the gambling business," Mansfield said.

Mansfield acknowledged that the state is an active participant in gambling by supporting computer slot machines run by the Oregon Lottery.

"I am ashamed of the state of Oregon for being in the gambling business," he said.

Raquel Summers listened to a little of heavy criticism against the Coquille before she left the hearing. Summers' father was part of the Coquille and she remains close to the tribe.

"I don't see why they have to run (the Coquille) into the ground like that," Summers said.

Summers believes the Cow Creek Band is acting in its own economic interests by criticizing the Coquille's legitimacy in Jackson County. She said it all comes down to the Cow Creek Band not wanting Jackson County residents staying put, but preferring that they drive up Interstate 5 to gamble in the Seven Feathers Casino instead.

"This is just a money thing for them," Summers said. "They don't want any competition."

A casino would bring much-needed jobs to Medford, Summers said.

Some people attended the meeting to become informed about the issue. Paul Pigue of Central Point said he is "emotionally" opposed to the casino but he is willing to listen to both sides before making his final judgment.

"I'm willing to be convinced that the casino is okay," he said.

As far as worrying about gambling as a moral issue, Pigue is troubled by the city government ruling against the tribe on those grounds.

"I don't want anyone legislating my morality," he said.

The City Council will discuss the casino plan at the May 2 meeting at Medford City Hall.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email cconrad@mailtribune.com.

People attending a Medford City Council meeting Thursday night on a Coquille Indian Tribe's plan to establish a casino in the city listen to public comments made to councilors in the Jackson County Courthouse auditorium. - Mail Tribune / Julia Moore