Tiny tribe bets its community on casino

Stillaguamish say gambling offers an escape from poverty

  • MOVE 'EM OUT: Stillaguamish Tribal Chairman Eddie Goodridge Jr. is framed in the window of a house being stripped of salvageable parts before its demolition to make room for a casino

    Justin Best
  • Stillaguamish Village

    Diane Sylvain
 

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.

When the 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.

That kind 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 fresh.”

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 Stillaguamish.

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 reopened.

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 Herald.

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.”

Goodridge 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 application.

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.

Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Nation’s largest tribe keeps casinos out."

You can contact ...

    The Washington State Gambling Commission, 360/486-3440;

   or, go to www.nodice.us.

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