Casino developers see jackpot in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After going bust in their first three attempts to get voters to approve Oregon's first nontribal casino, a group of investors is going all in this year.

With ample money from a Canadian investment firm, the proponents are feverishly selling Oregonians on their plans to build a casino and entertainment complex just outside Portland. They've bombarded television screens and mailboxes with a glitzy advertising campaign that talks more about schools than it does about gambling.

A quarter of gambling revenue would be earmarked for government services, and the Canadians are betting that they can change the conversation into a debate about school funding instead of a referendum on gambling.

"Let's face it, our economy and our schools aren't in great shape," says a woman narrating a television commercial promoting a project developers call The Grange. "Having another casino here won't impact my life, but better schools and more jobs will."

Opponents, led by the American Indian tribe that runs Spirit Mountain, the nearest casino to Portland, promise vigorous opposition. They argue that the measures open Oregon to gambling for private profit, instead of for public funds. They've derisively dubbed the project "The Grunge."

The developers face a tough slog. The last time voters weighed in, two years ago, they overwhelmingly rejected the idea, although the push was far more muted than the current one.

Voters will be asked two questions related to the proposed casino this November. Measure 82 would change the state constitution to allow privately owned casinos subject to votes statewide and in the local community. Measure 83 would authorize the Wood Village location.

The campaigns haven't had to report most of their expenditures so far, but records that are available give a peak at spending fit for a high-roller. Broadcast station records show the proponents have bought more than $400,000 worth of airtime to promote the casino on Portland's ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates. That doesn't include money spent on cable television or broadcast stations in other markets. Opponents began advertising on Thursday.

Developers see a lucrative, untapped market in Portland, where there's demand for gambling but the nearest casino is at least an hour's drive away. There are 66 weekly scheduled flights between Portland and Las Vegas, according to Port of Portland records. Statewide, video lottery terminals, which resemble slot machines in bars, pump millions into the state lottery every year.

Advertisements say the casino would pump $100 million into "schools, services and local commitments" based on the developers' contention that it will earn $400 million per year. The estimate is conservative, said Stacey Dycus, a spokeswoman for the proponents, but the government will get less money if the revenue falls short of expectations.

Based on preliminary figures, gambling revenue at all nine tribal casinos was about $470 million last year, said Bob Whelan, an economist at EcoNorthwest who analyzes the casinos' economic impact for the tribes. He estimates a privately owned casino in the Portland area would siphon about 36 percent of the revenue from Spirit Mountain, 60 miles southwest of Portland, with smaller impacts at the other casinos, which are farther from the metro area.

Clairvest Group Inc., a private equity firm based in Toronto, is the primary investor in the casino, working with Great Canadian Gaming Inc., which runs more than a dozen casinos and race tracks in British Columbia and Washington state, and two Lake Oswego businessmen who have been trying since 2005 to get voter approval for a privately owned casino.

The Oregon businessmen, Bruce Studer and Matt Rossman, failed to collect enough signatures in 2006 and 2008 to get their initiatives on the ballot. In 2010, only one of the two ballot measures qualified.

The developers say they'll build a casino, hotel, theater and "family-friendly" destination on the site of the abandoned Multnomah Kennel Club in Wood Village, a town of less than 4,000 people on the eastern edge of metropolitan Portland, about 15 miles from downtown.

They say the casino would be 130,000 square feet — about the size of an average Target store — with 2,200 slot machines and 100 table games. Their plans call for a 125-room hotel, water park, bowling alley, concert hall and a public space for farmers markets and other gatherings.

The ballot measure would authorize a larger casino with as many as 3,500 slot machines — the number first pitched by Studer and Rossman in 2005 — and 150 tables. There's no requirement that the project be built as pitched or that all of the entertainment amenities be included, but the proponents say they're committed to their plans.

For comparison, in Las Vegas, the Bellagio has 2,300 slots and the Wynn has 1,800, according to their websites. Spirit Mountain has about 2,000.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which runs Spirit Mountain, relies on casino revenue to pay for most of its government services, said Justin Martin, a spokesman for the tribe. With the proposed new casino, gambling dollars that currently pay for tribal services like health care, education and housing would instead go to foreign investors, he said.

"All the great things we've been able to do, by turning things around and becoming more and more self-sufficient, would be more difficult to do," Martin said.

Dycus, the spokeswoman for the campaign committee promoting the casino, downplayed the impact on the tribes. There's not a fixed amount of money that Oregonians spend on gambling, she said, and money spent at the development would come from customers' vacation budgets.

"We think we can create a destination that not only will attract new tourism in the state, but that will keep more Oregonians in the state to play," Dycus said. "We think more people will come to it that normally wouldn't go to a tribal casino or wouldn't play video poker."

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press