A bump in the road for southern Oregon’s illegal private casino

Oregon’s horse racing authority acknowledged the Oregon Department of Justice’s opinion, but the Flying Lark isn’t folding just yet.

 

HCN photo illustration
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BACKSTORY
Over the course of 2021, Travis Boersma, Oregon’s newest billionaire, developed an “entertainment venue” in Grants Pass called the Flying Lark — basically an illegal casino joined to a horse track. The Oregon Racing Commission, a state agency, shepherded the project toward license approval for 225 “historic horse racing machines,” or HHRs, which resemble slot machines but use internal math based on horse betting. At every step of the process, tribes across Oregon expressed concern about how the development would impact tribal economies, the public and the state’s legal framework for gambling oversight. They also objected  that no state agencies consulted with the tribes (“Gambling on a Lark,” February 2022).

FOLLOWUP
This month, the Oregon Department of Justice published an opinion that HHRs are games of chance, not skill, and as such are considered illegal lotteries. The opinion further states that “an entertainment facility with 225 HHRs would qualify as an unlawful casino.”

Anna Richter Taylor, a public affairs specialist, spoke to HCN on behalf of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, saying the tribe is pleased with the decision. “This opinion validated and confirmed what we’ve believed all along: that the Flying Lark would be unconstitutional,” Taylor said. She reiterated the tribes’ support of horse racing and economic development, and added that she hopes this will become an opportunity to form a special joint committee to find mutually beneficial solutions before any other gambling expansions take place in the state.

“The current regulatory framework is not adequate to address the role of technology in gambling, and the current process for these policy discussions have not been inclusive of all of the different components — social, economic, tribal — that will be impacted,” she said.

The decision is a major obstacle for the Flying Lark, but it’s not necessarily the end of the road. At a meeting on Feb. 17th, the Oregon Racing Commission disagreed with the opinion, but reluctantly (and unanimously) voted to issue a formal notice of intent to deny the Flying Lark’s HHR application. “I cannot provide the commission any legal advice, even though I’m an attorney,” said ORC chair Diego Conde. Nevertheless, he added, “There is a high likelihood that this matter does not conclude here.”

“My team and I believe the opinion is wrong and deeply flawed,” said Boersma during public comments at the same meeting, adding that he’s confident there’s a path to continue the process. Meanwhile, he said he’ll fund his horse track out of pocket through the fall season. “I’m not giving up. I’m gonna continue to be a force for God and a force for good in this endeavor.”

There have still not been any formal government-to-government consultations.

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

Brian Oaster (they/them) is a staff writer at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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