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Feds reject Medford casino

An eight-year effort by the Coquille Indian Tribe to build a casino in Medford was rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs this week, prompting a strong rebuke by the tribe.

“Instead of a fair and open process, this agency has turned to the hidden, back-room dealing that is the hallmark of an overly political process, a process that federal law repeatedly has tried to prevent,” said Brenda Meade, chairman of the tribe.

The tribe, which has bought land in south Medford for a casino and adjacent hotel, is weighing its options, including a possible appeal.

On May 27, John Tahsuda, principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian affairs, sent the tribe a letter informing it of the decision.

The tribe had expected a public comment period and consideration of an environmental report before the Bureau of Indian Affairs made a decision, and Meade said the Coquille were surprised at the abruptness of the decision.

“We’re just kind of in shock right now,” she said.

The tribe had spoken to the Bureau of Indian Affairs just over a week ago and didn’t receive any indication that a decision was imminent, Meade said.

In 2012, the tribe proposed The Cedars at Bear Creek, a Class II casino on 2.42 acres of south Medford commercial property. Class II gaming involves video gaming devices like slot machines, but no table games such as blackjack, poker or dice. Building the casino was based on the tribe’s ability to place the land into federal trust.

The casino site, at 2375 S. Pacific Highway, is surrounded by several parcels that the tribe hopes to develop for other commercial uses.

Tahsuda, in his letter, cited the 170-mile distance from the tribe’s current reservation land on the coast to the proposed trust land in Medford as one of the main reasons for the denial.

He said these “jurisdictional problems” along with concerns raised by local, state and municipal governments outweigh any benefits from the project.

Tahsuda also cited opposition from the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and the city of Medford just after the project was proposed.

“There was an amazing push against this project from the very beginning,” Meade said.

The Coquille operate the Mill Casino in North Bend, but it has been closed for two months because of the pandemic. Meade said the tribe is preparing to reopen the casino in light of COVID-19.

The tribe will continue to push forward with the hotel and potentially other developments along South Pacific Highway, just to the north of U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Meade said tribal casinos have helped local economies throughout Oregon, including her casino.

“Where would Lincoln City be without Chinook Winds (casino),” she said.

The tribe has met with political opposition to its proposal, particularly from the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, which owns Seven Feathers in Canyonville.

Dan Courtney, Cow Creek tribal chairman, said in an email response, “The Interior Department was correct to stop this project. This was never a dispute we wanted to have with a sister tribe. We want all Oregon Tribes to be able to provide economic opportunities and governmental services for their members and communities.”

He said the tribe has opposed any efforts to circumvent federal or state gaming laws.

Initially, the city of Medford strongly opposed the casino proposal, but in recent years a new set of councilors has offered a different tone.

“I’ve been on the council since 2015, and we’ve been neutral on it since then,” said Kevin Stine, Medford council president.

He said that personally he generally welcomes new developments in the city.

In early May, the Coquille submitted plans to build a 111-room hotel in south Medford on land next to its proposed casino.

The 63,350-square-foot Hotel at the Cedars would be located at 2355 S. Pacific Highway on a 3.6-acre property and employ up to 20 people.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

The Coquille Indian Tribe currently operates The Mill Casino in North Bend. Mail Tribune/file photo