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Going For Broke, Part 1: Medford’s Casino Quandry

Liam Moriarty

The proposal by the Coquille Indian tribe to build a new casino in Medford has taken heat from all sides, ever since it surfaced in 20-12. Federal, state and local elected officials have lined up against it. The Cow Creek Indian tribe is adamantly opposed. And comments from the public at large have been overwhelmingly negative.

I’m standing just off Route 99 in south Medford, across the highway from the headquarters of Harry and David, the gourmet fruit company. Right in front of me is Roxy Ann Lanes, a 24-lane bowling center. If the Coquille Indians have their way, it’ll be remodeled into a casino that would feature a restaurant and more than 6-hundred electronic gambling machines. With me is Judy Metcalf, CEO of the Coquille’s economic development company.
Judy Metcalf: “We’re really hoping to make this a great facility that Medford residents are proud of that can provide safe entertainment for adults.”

Metcalf says the 4-and-a-half acre property is ideal.
Judy Metcalf: “We have great visibility, access parking and we’re just contributing to the economic growth of south Medford.”

The Coquille already have one casino, on their reservation near Coos Bay. Tribal officials say a new casino in Medford will provide needed economic development to fund the tribe’s health, housing and other social programs. But in February, at a crowded public hearing in Medford held by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, several dozen speakers voiced a range of concerns.
Barbara Barnes: “Problem gambling as described by mental health professionals is a very serious addiction resulting in bankruptcy, divorce, criminal activity and suicide.”

Robert Coffin: “We will have an indirect loss of lottery dollars. And as you know, the lottery dollars help buttress the state budget.”

Reginald Breeze: “If we start down the path of allowing tribes to build multiple casinos, we’d better get ready to see a casino on every corner.”

There were other objections, as well. Members of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians warned a casino in Medford would siphon off customers from the tribe’s Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville, about an hour north. Cow Creek elder Vera Jones said the loss of revenue would be devastating.
Vera Jones: “The Coquille tribe should not enrich itself at the expense of my tribe’s welfare.”

Credit Coquille Tribe
Judy Metcalf, CEO of the Coquille Economic Development Corporation

Coquille officials counter that the casino will bring jobs, and have pledged to pay for municipal services and contribute to community charities. They say they’ve given more than $4.5 million to civic and charitable groups in southern Oregon since 2001. And at the public hearing in Medford, a few businesspeople from Coos Bay said the tribe’s casino there is an economic blessing.
But the Coquille’s Judy Metcalf says the bottom line is that the casino proposal is well within the tribe’s legal rights.
Judy Metcalf: “We’re not doing anything that Congress hasn’t designated us to do. Through our restoration act they gave us the ability to pursue economic development in five counties and that’s what the tribe is doing.”

The restoration act Metcalf refers to is a law Congress passed in 1989 that restored the Coquille’s legal status as a tribal nation under federal law. (During the 1950s, Congress had nullified the status of many of Oregon’s tribes.) In the act, Congress defined five counties -- Coos, Curry, Lane, Douglas and Jackson -- in which the Coquille could acquire land and have the government take it into trust; in effect, making it Indian land. Coquille tribal chair Brenda Meade says it comes down to a simple question.
Brenda Meade: “Do we have the right to purchase land in any of our five counties and ask the federal government to put it into trust? Absolutely.”

Whether the tribe’s legal position is as solid as Meade believes it is is open to question. But this is just one of the thorny issues the Coquille’s casino proposal raises, some of which could have broad implications for tribal gaming in Oregon, and across the country.

Copyright 2015 Jefferson Public Radio