Although ilani hasn’t opened yet, it’s already boosting the local economy. Ilani has hired more than 1,000 people to work at the casino, and 2,100 construction workers to build it. Fox La-Rose said most of the employees on the $45 million annual payroll are local residents.
Local takeout restaurants and gas stations are hustling to keep up with the new clientele.
Ilani is funding a new $100 million interchange off I-5 to allow for easier access on and off the highway. A new water and sewer system is being installed just for the casino. Ilani has also pledged to donate money to the local community, but at a far lower rate than other nearby casinos.
ilani construction in mid-March, 2017
Ilani will give 2 percent of its net revenue annually to Clark County, Fox-LaRose said. How and where those funds will be specifically distributed has not been set. Ilani is forming an advisory committee to determine the distribution, and no money will be donated until a year of operation is complete.
Spirit Mountain Casino on the Grand Ronde reservation in Polk County donates three times what ilani has pledged, giving 6 percent of its net revenue annually to local nonprofits. Last year, that was about $3.7 million. Seven Feathers Casino in Roseburg also donates 6 percent of its proceeds.
As revenue projections haven’t been set, it’s unknown how much money ilani could give to the local economy. If ilani brings in the same amount that Spirit Mountain currently does, that would be about $1 million a year.
As much as ilani promises to give to the local economy, both La Center and Ridgefield anticipate some negative impact on their bottom lines. And one town has a lot more to lose.
In La Center, just over a mile from ilani, visitors are welcomed by a colorful array of small casinos. More than the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it main street, the casinos are the center of town.
The entrance to La Center
Those casinos finance the bulk of La Center’s operations. They give 10 percent of their gross revenue to the town, an average of $3.1 million a year. That’s about 75 percent of the city’s budget.
They also bring tourists from the Portland metro area to the otherwise sleepy hamlet. Cardrooms are routinely filled with people playing poker, blackjack and baccarat.
“You come in the evenings and this place is packed. Especially on buffet night – it’s shoulder to shoulder,” said Christina, an employee at the Palace Casino.
But ilani is already changing that. Several employees have left the Palace for ilani jobs. Christina applied for a job at ilani, attracted by the promise of health benefits, but didn’t make the cut.
At Last Frontier Casino, employees say a third of the staff has been hired by ilani. At the New Phoenix, the hit was too much. The casino closed in late March. A fourth casino called Chips closed in 2014.
“The impacts from the ilani were absolutely the reason for the New Phoenix closure,” said John Bockmier, spokesman for the La Center cardrooms.
Bockmier said the cardrooms don’t know how much of a hit they should expect, since ilani hasn’t opened yet. But it’s already gutted their staff, and hiring new casino employees isn’t easy in a rural area.
Longtime La Center residents Matt and Beth Doucey
“It’s very difficult to find that skilled labor in the community we’re in,” he said.
The city is working to cut its budget and Bockmier said there have been talks of reducing the casinos’ tax burden as well.
Many La Center residents are hesitant about more than the financial impact.
Matt and Beth Doucey have lived in La Center for decades. They say they love the small town atmosphere.
“Strong family ties and quiet country living,” Matt Doucey said. “All of a sudden you’ve got this mega-casino and we don’t need all this commercialization. We moved out here because we didn’t want to live in Vancouver.”
Anthony Sharrah, owner of La Center's Fourth Street Bar, hopes the casino brings more business
But others in La Center are looking forward to ilani and the influx of visitors it’s expected to bring.
“The amount of people it’s going to bring to the area – as far as the type of businesses I have – I think it’s going to benefit them,” said Anthony Sharrah, owner of the Trellis gift shop and the Fourth Street Bar.
He hopes that once ilani opens, he will have enough business to add a lunch service.
“Everybody who lives here works someplace else, so we don’t have a lunch crowd. You have a handful of housewives who maybe don’t work,” he said. “It will be nice to have some other sort of revenue stream for our residents.”
It’s a different story in Ridgefield, Washington, where the ilani casino isn’t directly competing with any of the town’s businesses.
Ridgefield is already undergoing rapid growth. The town has tripled in size in the past decade and it’s prepared to keep growing.
New construction in Ridgefield on former farmland
“When I became mayor 10 years ago we were at 2,900 people. Now we’re at 7,500,” said Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow. “It’s growing very fast. Last year we had 350 new homes built and they were all sold before they were finished. This year we expect at least that many, maybe more. We have land, we have great schools. People like our little downtown.”
Schools could see a lot more students, as ilani is within the Ridgefield school district. Onslow is also concerned about how the expected influx of traffic will impact infrastructure, and how the casino’s sheer daily population could strain city resources.
“They are going to be like a small city,” he said. “They need a police force, fire, sewer, water. I’ve asked that they be a good neighbor.”
At Vinnie's Pizza in Ridgefield, Doris Gasca says ilani workers are already adding to the restaurant's business
Onslow said ilani has agreed to help facilitate the transition, but they have not provided many specifics yet as opening day nears.
He also worries about how ilani’s 15 new restaurants will impact the town’s small crop of downtown eateries, but Ridgefield’s restaurant owners are more excited than nervous.
“For me? I don’t mind,” said Roberto, owner of the El Rancho Viejo Mexican restaurant. “I don’t like casinos but I like business. More people, I like it.”
Doris Gasca, who works at nearby Vinnie’s Pizza, said business spiked recently.
“They order a lot of pizzas from us – the contractors, the electricians. We love it,” she said.
Best friends Charlotte and Janet are eagerly awaiting ilani's grand opening
Other Ridgefield residents can’t wait to have a casino in their backyard. Best friends Charlotte and Janet get together with a group of women at the Ridgefield library every week to knit and gossip. Unlike some of their fellow knitters who detest gambling and worry about increased crime, Janet and Charlotte say they can’t wait for the casino to open.
“It’s not like I have a gambling problem but I enjoy it,” Charlotte said. “It’s a pleasure for us.”
The pair frequently visits Lucky Eagle casino in Rochester, Wash. to play the slots. With 2,500 new slot machines now a 10-minute drive away, they said they’ll be patronizing ilani from opening day.
“You bet! We’ll probably be first in line,” Janet said.