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Klamath Tribes launch casino venture today

CHILOQUIN ­ Behind the glitter of Kla-Mo-Ya Casino is the KlamathIndians' first tribal enterprise in 42 years.

This is the first step on our road back, said Jennifer Ochoa,casino marketing manager and one of 3,100 members of the Klamath Tribes.

The casino is scheduled to open this afternoon on Highway 97 at the CraterLake junction. It's near Chiloquin, 22 miles north of Klamath Falls.

The Klamaths' tribal status was terminated by the federal governmentin 1954. The government converted most of their 1,500-square-mile reservationinto part of the Winema National Forest. Each member was paid $43,500 ascompensation.

Until then we were self-sufficient, said Jeff Mitchell, tribalchairman. We lost our land base, and we lost our economic base.

The Klamath people sank into a social and economic depression after thelast of their land had been liquidated, Ochoa said.

The Klamath Tribes General Council ­ comprising people of Klamath,Modoc and Yahooskin heritage (the source of Kla-Mo-Ya) ­ was restoredin 1975, and it gained the Klamaths formal recognition from the U.S. governmentin 1986.

The tribal council studied potential economic development possibilitiesfor several years before proceeding with the casino.

We looked at a number of options, Mitchell said. Thiscasino is the cornerstone of our economic recovery. It has the potentialto provide some immediate revenue.

The tribe issued private placement bonds to finance the purchase of 70acres and build the $7 million casino on nine acres. Wells Fargo Bank issueda $1.5 million line of credit for marketing, staffing and training.

The casino features 300 slot machines, three poker tables and six blackjacktables. A deli and a buffet with seating for 126 will open by mid-July,Ochoa said.

The casino will be open around the clock; the buffet will be served from10 a.m. to midnight. The 16,000-square-foot casino also provides a stagefor entertainment on weekends.

The implications of this are far-reaching, starting with employment,Mitchell said.

He grew up in Chiloquin, the base of the tribal headquarters and a prosperingcommunity when the timber industry flourished. The termination of the tribeand the recession of the early 1980s left the community as the poorest inthe state, he said. It now has about 750 residents.

The casino will employ 235 people. About 70 percent are tribal members,and most of the rest are community residents.

The tribes chose to operate the casino instead of retaining a managementcompany, Ochoa said.

About 1,700 tribal members live in the Klamath County area. Their householdincome is estimated at $8,750, compared with an average $15,700 for employeesin Oregon gaming centers.

The casino is expected to draw more than 300,000 visits each year.

Revenues, distributed under terms of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,must go toward tribal facilities, to promote economic development and forthe tribes' general welfare and to charitable donations or local government.

The tribes' business plan includes the long-range goal of increasingits land holdings and developing businesses other than gaming.

Community development projects include a community center, child-carecenter, elder-care center, social services, expanded health services anda tribal museum.

The tribes envision the development of a police force, judicial systemand fire department.

A revolving loan fund would be available to tribal members who want tobuild homes or consolidate debt. Other endeavors include housing, financialaid, education and training.

Mitchell said he hopes the county can benefit along with the tribe.

Klamath County has seen its share of economic problems, hesaid. We're looking toward tourism as a way to promote the resourceswe have. This county has a lot to offer.

One reason we're starting small is to see if the market demandis here, said Ochoa. Other tribal casinos are several hours' driveaway in Warm Springs and Canyonville.

Dell Lundien of Reno puts finishing touches inside a slot machine in preparation for today's opening of the Kla-Mo-Ya Casino near Chiloquin. - Photo by Bob Pennell</P