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Opponents voice concerns over proposed North Salem casino

The Bureau of Indian Affairs took public comment about the project on Wednesday night. Most speakers voiced their opposition.

SALEM, Ore. — On Wednesday night, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a public meeting about a casino proposed by the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. The tribe hopes to build a gaming facility just off of Interstate 5 in north Salem. 

The agency took comments from the public after finishing and releasing an initial 2,700-page environmental assessment. It included many different studies, on traffic, and water and sewer. 

Siletz tribal attorney Craig Dorsay explained the tribe had been planning this idea for many years, with the current proposal dating back to 2017. They hope to build a more than 180,000 square foot casino with 2,000 gaming devices and 45 tables. Plans include a hotel and multiple dining options. 

RELATED: Tribes balk as Oregon horse track looks to add gaming machines

"The plans are to have approximately 1,200 employees at the casino project in Salem. Those would be good paying, permanent jobs," Dorsay said. "The tribe pays more than minimum wage and more than most other businesses in the local community with good benefits. There will be construction jobs for a couple of years and it should expand the tax base of the city of Salem and Marion County substantially."

Dorsay said there are several steps before it could become a reality, including approval from the Secretary of the Interior and the governor. 

"Because the land is not located within the original Siletz reservation and went into trust status after 1988, there is a specific process that has to be followed," he said.

During Wednesday night's public comment, a few speakers voice their support. However, many more expressed opposition to the casino including several Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde tribal members. They said it would negatively impact their Spirit Mountain Casino on the Grand Ronde reservation, which is 30 miles west of Salem. 

Cheryle A. Kennedy, Chairwoman for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, released the following statement to KGW:

“The Siletz proposal would have a devastating impact on Grand Ronde’s Spirit Mountain Casino, rural Oregon communities and the state of Oregon. It would devastate Spirit Mountain Casino, impact Grand Ronde’s ability to care for its membership and open the floodgates for private gaming throughout the state. An expansion of gaming in Oregon, like what we’re seeing with the flying lark proposal in Southern Oregon, would devastate all of Oregon’s tribes who rely on casino revenue to support their communities," Kennedy wrote.

Others also expressed their opposition. 

"If approved, it will irreversibly begin the process of moving that business success from Indian reservations to big cities," said one speaker. 

"When you talk about creating new jobs, you're really not creating new jobs. Just moving jobs from rural areas, where jobs are harder to find, to Salem, where there are plenty of jobs," said another.

"We cannot support projects that take money out of one tribe's pocket and place in another," said a third person.

Others brought up the fact the Siletz tribe already has a casino on the Oregon Coast: Chinook Winds in Lincoln City. 

"It earns the tribe some money, but it doesn’t meet all of the tribes needs," said Dorsay. "The proposal for Salem is that the Siletz tribe would keep 25% of the net revenues. The federal statue limits what revenues can be spent for. They have to be sped for governmental programs. Then the tribe would share 25% of the net revenues with the state and, or local government. And 50% of the net revenues would be distributed to the other eight federally recognized tribes in Oregon."

On Thursday, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians shared a statement in response to the opposition.

“We are disappointed with the Grande Ronde’s opposition to our Salem Casino Project and their false narrative about how the Casino will deter revenue from existing Oregon casinos and hurt other Tribes. These statements are simply untrue. The mission of The Siletz Casino Project is just the opposite. We intend to share revenue of the property with all Oregon Tribes . The Salem Casino will direct additional revenue to State and local government to support solutions to issues that Salem is confronting and to further offset any impacts the Casino operation may have.

Grande Ronde spent an incredible amount of time and resources on a similar false narrative during the approval process for the ilani casino in SW Washington, and earlier when they opposed the Warm Springs Tribe establishing a casino in Cascade Locks. They claimed that Cowlitz’s casino would reduce the revenues at Spirit Mt. Casino and for the Oregon Lottery.  This has proven to not be the case. We invite The Grande Ronde to work in partnership with us and not against us.”

The city of Salem requested an extension on the public comment period. Officials said they want to make sure leaders and the public have time to review the environmental assessment. The Bureau of Indian Affairs granted that extension to June.