Tiny tribe bets its community on casino
Stillaguamish say gambling
offers an escape from poverty ARLINGTON, Wash. —
Tallying up the tiny Stillaguamish Tribe’s economic assets
doesn’t take more than a couple of fingers on one hand
belonging to tribal director Eddie Goodridge Jr. There’s the
fireworks stand off Interstate 5 and the tribal smokehouse, little
more than a roadside fish stand. Add federal grants, and what you
get, says Goodridge, is very little. “You can’t do much
with that,” he says.
Goodridge says the
tribe’s limited finances means it has a hard time providing
adequate services, such as education and health care, for its 194
members. So, like many other tribes, the Stillaguamish have staked
their future on a casino. “The casino is going to do
well,” he says. “And it will enable the tribe to come
in and do those services.”
But as part of the gamble
for their future, the Stillaguamish have had to make a traumatic
break with the past.
The tribe’s ancestral land
centered around the river of the same name, but also extended as
far south as present-day Tacoma, according to Goodridge. Because
the Stillaguamish weren’t officially recognized by the
federal government until 1976 — and consequently had no
reservation of their own — tribal members lived in scattered
pockets across Snohomish County.
tribe was finally recognized, it purchased a small plot of land
just north of Arlington and built what would become known as
“the Village.” The Village, a cul-de-sac of ramshackle
Department of Housing and Urban Development dwellings anchored by a
community center, was home to several dozen Stillaguamish families
for two decades. It was the tribe’s only community.
In December, however, to clear land for the 45,000 square-foot
casino, the tribe leveled 28 homes, leaving behind just two
patchwork houses, some cedar stumps and the community center,
ringed by molehills of rubble and vacant mailboxes. The families
who lived here have once again scattered to different parts of
Snohomish County and Washington state.
For some people,
the opportunity to ditch the HUD homes and the makeshift
reservation was a godsend. But others, unhappy with how Goodridge
handled the move, wonder what effect the destruction of the village
and the ensuing mini-diaspora will have on the cultural ties that
bind the tribe.
Money opens doors The
decision to level the Stillaguamish village was not without its
advantages. Backed by the investors that are financing the casino
project, the tribe spent about $5 million offering families a
$215,000 housing allowance or $90,000 in cash.
of money opened doors for some tribal members. Melody Smith, 25,
who grew up in the HUD homes, says they were crowded, noisy and
drafty. She didn’t want her 8-year-old daughter, Toddymay, to
have the same kind of childhood. “Even though it was a
community, I wanted to move out of there,” she says.
So, with the tribe’s help, she bought a 5-bedroom house for
$185,000, about 18 miles from the village, in a quiet corner of the
soggy Stillaguamish River Valley. She spent the remainder of the
allowance, about $30,000, on furniture. “I kept nothing but
my dishes and our clothes,” she says. “We started
The Stillaguamish casino is expected to
create about 300 jobs, with hiring priority going to tribal
members. Eventually, says Goodridge, the tribal government will
distribute dividends from the casino’s profits to the
Not all the facility’s profits will
go to the tribe. According to Goodridge, the casino’s
financiers, Arlington Gaming, a Delaware partnership with offices
in Michigan, will get 12 percent of the casino’s gross
revenues during its first six years to cover its $36 million loan
to the tribe.
Fast-talking and self-confident, Goodridge
has little doubt of the casino’s success. The statistics seem
to support his faith: According to the Washington State Gambling
Commission, in the 22 years since there has been tribal gaming in
Washington, only one of the state’s 18 casinos, the
Lummi’s, has closed — and it has since
A risky decision But not
everyone else is confident that the gamble was worth it. Patrice
“Paki” Martin and Ed Kempf took the $90,000 dollar
buyout and bought a trailer in the town of Concrete, about an hour
to the north. Martin has said the casino development threatens to
ruin the tribe’s tenuous cultural heritage. “It’s
devastation (to) a lot of our people,” she told the Everett
Others have questioned the location of the casino,
dropped in a rural neighborhood ten miles off the interstate,
marked more by soaring cedars than neon billboards. “There
aren’t any commercial developments out here. The area is
rural and completely residential,” says local resident Ken
Childress, whose organization, No Dice, opposes the development.
“We don’t even have a 7-11.”
has dismissed casino critics as “rotten apples” and
“pow-wows,” but the tribe’s ambitious plan could
yet hit the skids. A state Gaming Commission investigation into
Arlington Gaming’s funding source — a Detroit
carpenters’ union pension fund that made illegal mortgage
loans in the 1990s — has delayed approval of the casino
Goodridge says the tribe had hoped to break
ground on the casino this January. Now, he says construction
isn’t likely to begin before next winter. If the state
doesn’t approve the gaming permit, the tribe could be left
with a vacant lot — and the $5 million tab for its
members’ new housing.
The writer is a
freelance writer living in Seattle.
• The Washington
State Gambling Commission, 360/486-3440;
• or, go to www.nodice.us.
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