Double down: Huge crowds jam ilani Casino Resort

$510 million casino also includes restaurants, bars, shopping

A slot machine inside the ilani Casino Resort on opening day, April 24, 2017 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — After years of lawsuits from various parties, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe opened their glistening new casino, ilani, on Monday. And people flocked to fill it to capacity as soon as it opened.

By 12:45 p.m., the Washington Department of Transportation posted a message on an electronic billboard along I-5: “Casino parking lot is full, no access.” But just before 2 p.m., Tom Teesdale, the VP of Marketing for the casino, told KOIN 6 News parking re-opened with access available from I-5.

Teesdale added the 3000 self-park spaces and the 800 valet spaces were filled by 11:30 a.m. Since then, he said, a steady flow of guests has kept the casino packed with about 3500 people at any given time.

“I think folks have been waiting for ilani for a long time,” Teesdale said.

A roulette table inside the ilani Casino Resort on opening day, April 24, 2017 (KOIN)
A roulette table inside the ilani Casino Resort on opening day, April 24, 2017 (KOIN)

The casino is home to 2500 slot machines and 75 gaming tables covering 100,000 square feet. The ilani Casino Resort includes 15 restaurants — including a Michael Jordan Steakhouse and a seafood spot called Line and Lure — bars and retail stores. Cowlitz officials hope the $510 million casino draws as many as 4.5 million visitors and create 1200 jobs.

Randy Cottonware and his sister Molly Gress, who are members of the Cowlitz Tribe, said much of the decor is tied to Cowlitz tribal traditions.

“The light represents us. You’ve got a map on the floor, which represents us. You’ve got fish from the ceiling there, represents us,” Cottonware said.

“This is our land,” Gress said. “This is amazing.

There are future plans to build a 400-room hotel, but for the next few years it’s really about about the casino.

Cowlitz Tribal Chairman William Iyall told the Seattle Times that opening day marks a triumphant moment for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and signifies the end of a 160-year journey back to the tribe’s homeland.

The tribe refused in 1855 to sign a treaty and move into a proposed reservation site. It took decades of campaigning to persuade the federal Interior Department in 2000 to grant the Cowlitz legal status as a tribe.

But the owners of the Spirit Mountain Casino in Oregon’s Coast Range, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, fear Spirit Mountain could lose 41% of its revenue when the Cowlitz casino opens near La Center.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear a challenge to the 368,000-square-foot gambling complex from nearby card room owners concerned the new facility will draw away business.

Estimates say the complex is projected to draw away at least $200 million annually from the card rooms, other tribal casinos and the Oregon Lottery.

“The direct impact is going to be on our video lottery sales, that’s where the competition with any casino is,” Oregon Lottery Director Barry Pack told KOIN 6 News. “That directly impacts transfers to the state, which funds important programs like schools, parks, watersheds and jobs.”

Pack says he has a plan to mitigate losses from competition with the casino. For starters, the Oregon Lottery has already replaced about 9,000 of the state’s 12,000 video lottery terminals with new machines. There is also talks of attracting new customers by bringing lottery games right to your phone in the future.

A rendering of the Ilani resort and casino, which will open Monday, April 24, 2017. (Ilani)

Law enforcement

A 67-page agreement between Clark County and the Cowlitz tribe covers the parameters of when deputies will step in, and Sheriff Chuck Atkins said they’re prepared to respond to anything.

The tribe paid Clark County $250,000 to cover the costs of police, prosecution and jail space. Atkins said calls from the casino will be prioritzed in the same manner as every other call that comes in.

“Their mere calling for us doesn’t mean automatically that we drop everything and we run to the casino,” Atkins told KOIN 6 News. “It will pull from the existing resources immediately but we are already trying to gear up – hire more – and keep that process moving.”

Part of the agreement includes the provision the sheriff’s office can request more money next year, if necessary.

The law enforcement duties will be split this way: If a suspect is not a tribal member, the county would handle it. If the suspect is a tribal member, the sheriff’s office will contact the FBI, with agents from Vancouver or Portland responding.

Prosecution in those cases would be handled by the US Attorney’s Office.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.