Siletz tribe moves forward with Salem casino

The entrance to an RV park next to the proposed site for a casino being pursued by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians is pushing forward with its effort to build a casino in Salem, setting up a clash with the nearby Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The tribe has applied to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for authority to establish a 20-acre off-reservation casino located at 4751 Astoria Street N.E. in Salem, according to a letter sent out to local governments obtained by the Salem Reporter.

Just off of Interstate 5, the new casino could include a 500-room hotel, three restaurants, a food court, a night club, a sports bar, an events center and parking, according to the letter. The 180,800-square-foot casino would house 2,000 gaming devices and 45 tables, the letter from May 7 said.

The tribe’s application triggered a process in which local governments within a 25-mile radius of the proposed casino can submit comments about its potential impact on infrastructure, revenue and treatment programs for problem gambling.

“The responses by the local governments have been concerns over transportation and housing,” said Delores Pigsley, Siletz chair. She said the Siletz will work with local governments on their concerns.

If built, the casino would have a unique revenue-sharing arrangement. Half of profits generated by the casino would go to other tribes, with another quarter going to state and local governments, according to the project’s website.

Each of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes operate casinos. The Siletz have operated the Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City since 1995.

They expect 1,500 full-time jobs and $184.5 million in revenue the first year in operation from the new casino.

Despite the promise of shared revenue, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are opposing the new project out of concerns it will cut into its Spirit Mountain Casino, located 35 miles away.

Justin Martin, lobbyist for the Grand Ronde, said that a new casino in Salem would mean a significant financial hit for the tribe. In 2017, Washington’s Cowlitz Tribe opened the ilani Casino just north of Vancouver. He said that the Grand Ronde commissioned a study that found that it would see a 67% reduction in revenue from ilani and a new casino in Salem.

He said that Spirit Mountain Casino is the largest employer in Polk County, with 1,200 positions. He said the casino also supports 400 tribal jobs and a health and wellness center that’s available for use by non-tribal members. In addition, he said it funds fire and police services that serve the broader community.

More broadly, Martin said that if the Siletz casino were to be approved it would undermine the original aims behind tribal gaming.

“The original intent of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was to create economic opportunity in and around reservations throughout the United States,” he said.

If the casino were to be approved, it would provide an incentive for tribes to pursue similar projects in urban areas, he said.

Piglsey said that the Siletz have been meeting with the Grand Ronde in hopes of coming to an arrangement.

The Siletz announced the project in 2017 with the intention of opening it by 2021. But it’s far from a done deal and must be approved by federal authorities and the governor of Oregon.

“This will be a pretty protracted process,” said Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett, who said the city is still evaluating all the impacts of the new casino.

In May, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected an attempt by the Coquille Indian Tribe to build a casino in Medford after an eight-year effort. In 1992, then Gov. Barbara Roberts rejected a previous attempt by the Siletz to build a casino in Salem. It took the Cowlitz Tribe over a decade to open its casino.

Marion County hasn’t taken a position on the project, county spokeswoman Jolene Kelley said in an email. She said that the county has provided comments to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for a review of transportation and housing needs if the project moves forward.

Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope said that his county has chosen not to weigh in on the project.

“We are trying really hard not to get caught between the city of Salem and the (Grand Ronde),” he said.

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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Commissioner Craig Pope’s name.