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The Yurok Casino Wager 

Tribe members vote to decide fate of $10 million project

This week, the Yurok Tribe Election Board will tally votes to decide how to spend $27.5 million in settlement money from the U.S. government. At stake is a proposed $10 million casino and hotel, which proponents say would revitalize the tribe while opponents call the idea ill-conceived.

As proposed, the hotel and casino would be part of the tribal council's ambitious master plan, which includes a main street with retail buildings, a public plaza and pavilion, a justice center and a school/community center. A combination of grants, state funding and proceeds from the hotel and casino could pay for all that. The hotel and casino would be built across from the tribal office in Klamath on 8½ acres of tribal trust land that's already zoned for commercial development. If the measure passes, ground-breaking could happen as early as next month.

In a letter sent out with the ballots, Tribal Chairman Thomas O'Rourke Sr. urged voters to approve the project, saying it would allow for "the thoughtful development of a profitable, tribally owned hotel and casino."

The facilities would include approximately 99 slot machines, a 50-seat restaurant and sports bar and a 60-room Holiday Inn Express complete with an exercise room and indoor pool. Among potential customers are travelers in the roughly 3.4 million vehicles that Caltrans estimates pass through Klamath annually on U.S. highway 101.

But not all tribe members support the casino idea. Frank McCovey, one of the original drafters of the Yurok constitution, wants tribe members to reject the proposal. "I hope it [causes] riot and revolution," he said. He and James Dunlap, a flooring contractor from Klamath, have helped organize opposition. Both men ran against Chairman O'Rourke last November, and both have been critical of the tribal council. They feel that all the proceeds from the legal settlement should go directly to tribe members.

"I just want to give people a shot at $6,000," McCovey said. That's how much would be distributed to each tribe member over age 18 if the casino/hotel plan is jettisoned. Members under 18 would get $1,000 apiece placed in trust accounts.

The $27.5 million settlement arose from the class action case of Nez Perce, et al v. Kenneth L. Salazar, et al, which accused the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs of mismanaging tribal funds and resources from 1947-1988.

The Yurok Tribe, which is the largest tribe in California with more than 5,000 enrolled members, was one of 12 original plaintiffs when the lawsuit was filed in 2006. In 2008, 30 other tribes joined the suit. The settlement agreement was reached last year, and many of the tribes involved are struggling to decide how best to use the funds.

If the casino/hotel measure passes, tribe members would still receive more than 60 percent of the funds. Those over age 60 would get $4,500 apiece; those between 18 and 59 would receive $3,500 each; and those under 18 would still get $1,000 apiece placed in trust accounts. The remainder would go toward the casino/hotel and attorneys' fees.

McCovey believes that all the money should go directly to tribe members. Unemployment on the reservation ranges from 30 percent near the coast to more than 80 percent on the upper reservation, according to 2009 statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor. And more than 80 percent of the reservation lives below the poverty line, according to the tribe's website.

Opponents also say that the casino would not be financially viable, and they point to the defunct Golden Bear Casino across the river as evidence. That casino, on the Resighini Rancheria, has closed three separate times, including in 1997 when the Klamath River flooded and again in 2008 when the casino's business license expired. Resighini Rancheria officials declined to be interviewed.

But tribe officials say the idea is sound. According to the Yurok Tribal Council, a feasibility study from Klas Robinson Hospitality projected that a casino would generate about $2.2 million annually, and another from PFK Consulting found that the hotel would bring in $1.5 million annually. Together they are projected to employ up to 100 people year-round.

"I question the validity of the reports," Dunlap said. "The numbers just don't add up." He remembers when representatives from Harvey's and Harrah's casinos visited the area in the 1990s and concluded there wasn't a large enough population base to support a casino. Dunlap would prefer to see the tribe enter a compact to run a casino in a more populated location, such as the San Francisco Bay Area.

Dunlap also contends that the ballot referendum is illegal under tribal law, and he plans to file an injunction with the Yurok tribal court. The mail-in voting process, he claims, violates tribal law on three counts: First, the tribal council did not post an announcement of the referendum 45 days prior to the election, as required under the tribal election ordinance. Second, a sample ballot was not mailed out as required. And third, tribal members should have been allowed to vote at the polls rather than through the mail. McCovey and Dunlap say they are prepared to take the case to the U.S. Department of the Interior and beyond, if necessary.

Despite numerous attempts, the Journal was unable to reach Chairman O'Rourke for comment.

Election results are scheduled to be posted within 24 hours of Wednesday's election, but if the plan's opponents have their way the courts could ultimately decide the casino's fate.

More on the proposed casino can be found at yuroktribe.org.

Benjamin Fordham graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in journalism. He lives in McKinleyville.

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