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Betting on success

On a hilltop overlooking Yreka, Calif., workers are busy scraping off 200,000 cubic yards of dirt to erect a $30 million casino that will be betting heavily on Medford residents for its success.

By next summer, the Karuk Tribe’s Rain Rock Casino, a 36,000-square-foot gaming facility on Sharps Road, will give Jackson County residents a casino option that's 17 miles closer than Seven Feathers in Canyonville.

“We’re excited about the Southern Oregon market,” said tribal councilor Josh Saxon.Since 2004, when the Karuk began earnestly seeking approval for the casino, the tribe has met with skepticism and opposition in Siskiyou County, a skepticism that lingers today even as many locals welcome the 300 jobs the casino is expected to bring.The tribe has overcome many hurdles, including obtaining ratification of its gaming compact by the California State Legislature as well as agreements with the city of Yreka, Siskiyou County and the California Department of Transportation.Grant Eastlick, manager of the Miner St. Meat Market in downtown Yreka, said he hopes the Karuk buy local products, including some of his popular rib eye steaks.But once a planned hotel is built next to the casino, he said it’s unlikely that many customers will venture into Yreka.“It will probably not help Miner Street,” he said.The Karuk Tribe believes the casino will help its approximately 3,700 tribal members but also will be a boon for Siskiyou County and Yreka, which have been in an economic slump since the decline of the timber industry. The unemployment rate in the county was 6.9 percent in May, while Yreka’s was 9.8 percent.The Karuks have about 420 members in the Yreka area. They have tribal lands in both Siskiyou and Humboldt counties. The main population centers are in Orleans, Happy Camp and Yreka.On the other side of a hill from the casino, reservation houses and apartments dot a hillside that looks out toward Mount Shasta. Another 34 low-income houses are going to be built in the same area, and a wellness center recently opened about a quarter-mile from the casino.Tribal members, who are part of the construction crew, can walk to work, and once the casino opens it will provide a nearby source of employment for the Karuk.Over the years, many tribal members have left for other areas because of the lack of employment in Siskiyou County, said Buster Attebery, chairman of the Karuk Tribal Council.“We’re hoping to see tribal members come back,” he said.While much of the profits will pay off loans initially, Attebery said the goal of the casino is to expand health care and social services to tribal members, including those living outside the Karuks' service area.Attebery said expansion plans will be approved only after the casino has proved itself economically.He said he expects the casino will boost tourism in the area.Wright Hotel Development of Vancouver, Wash., is overseeing the first phase of the project, which should be completed by next summer. The casino will feature 500 video-gaming machines, eight table games and a 100-seat restaurant.Project superintendent Doug Harris said the dirt being excavated off the hillside will be used for fill to create parking areas for the casino.The second phase, which could take place in the next five years, will include an 80-room hotel with top-floor suites that could have views of Mount Shasta. It also will add 20,000 square feet to the gaming space, 300 more gaming machines and eight table games. Additional parking will be built in the second phase.The old-town area around Miner Street, which looks a bit like downtown Jacksonville, has a quaint, turn-of-the-last-century feel and is dotted with restaurants, a barber shop and other stores.“I think it’s going to be really good for us,” said 32-year-old Shana Hampton, a server at Etna Brewing. “This county is very short on jobs.”She said she looks forward to more people visiting Yreka when Rain Rock is built, but notes that many locals don’t welcome the casino.“Older people are going to have more of a problem with it,” she said.Hornbrook residents Jim and Francine Beauchamp, who stopped in for lunch at Etna Brewing, said they worried the casino would only encourage problem gambling.“I can’t imagine any net positive from the casino,” said Jim, 78.Francine, also 78, who sometimes goes to Seven Feathers to play blackjack, said, “We know some people locally that are addicted to gambling.”Merchants in downtown Yreka appear to be skeptical about whether the customers who stop at the casino will take the time to visit the downtown.Some said privately that the area has enough problems with drugs and high unemployment.Candy Mott, who has operated Yreka Soap Co. for 15 years on Miner Street, said big corporations such as Walmart and Raley’s dominate the community. She said they provide necessary goods for local residents on a budget but they also push out local stores in the process. She said the casino likely will produce the same results.“I don’t think it will do anything for the downtown,” she said.The tribe has heard lots of complaints over the years, but Attebery said the casino will help restore some of the economic vitality that was lost in the region when the timber mills shut down.He said the casino generally will offer a “living-wage” job to employees that will average about $15 an hour, money that will be spent in the local community, Attebery said.The casino plans to employ as many local people as possible as well as tribal members.Tribal member Saxon said a training program will be developed to help tribal members learn customer service skills.Some tribal members initially might struggle to provide the kind of customer service that casino visitors expect, he said. As a result, they will initially work as cooks and in other areas of the casino as they undergo education programs that will give them other work opportunities, Saxon said.The tribe is funding one additional police officer in Yreka and has agreed to replace a squad car every few years to help provide patrol assistance at the casino.Both the Coquille Indian Tribe, which hopes to build a Cedars at Bear Creek casino in Medford, and the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Indians, which could lose Seven Feathers customers to Yreka, have publicly supported the Karuks' casino.An analysis by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs found the Karuk casino could see a 22 percent revenue drop if the Coquille Indian Tribe succeeds in building a video-gambling operation in Medford. Attebery said he realizes that he has competition from other casinos but believes the Karuk casino will offer a broader market appeal."We want to make this a destination resort where we showcase all of Southern Oregon and Northern California, the beauty they have to offer and the outdoors," Attebery said.

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

Grant Eastlick, manager of Miner St. Meat Market, says a casino likely will not bring more customers to downtown Yreka, especially once its hotel is built. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Shana Hampton, a server at Etna Brewing Co., says Yreka needs more jobs, so she welcomes the casino. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch