VIVA LAS TACOMA

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By Matt Nagle 

The following is the first in a series of articles we’ll be presenting over the coming weeks concerning the Puyallup Tribe’s new casino, the tribe’s impact on city government and on local projects like the Sound Transit Link extension, and other related topics of interest to the people of Tacoma.

For many months now, a structure of gargantuan proportions has been slowly rising on Portland Avenue next to I-5. It’s impossible to miss, as it overpowers everything around it and it still isn’t done yet. What is it? The Puyallup Tribe’s new Emerald Queen Casino.

At a total of 310,000 square feet, the building includes 110,000 square feet for the casino; 21,000 square feet for a 2,000-seat events center; a 200-room, $65 million hotel; spa and conference rooms; and two parking garages with 1,370 stalls total.

Originally scheduled to open this month, but now reportedly moved to February and still no specific date announced, with construction still visibly underway, it’s anyone’s guess as to exactly when the doors will open. 

The structure already has become the major sight for everyone driving along I-5 at the gateway to Tacoma. The rather hulking mass, with its towering lighted signs and electronic billboards, will certainly serve as a visual cacophony especially at night when the lights are ablaze in all their LED glory.

“You hate to say gaming is going to identify Tacoma, but gaming will identify Tacoma when you drive down the freeway and see this building all lit up with the LED boards and being beautiful,” EQC general manager Frank Wright told Tacoma City Council last year.

The new casino is located in an area that has long been the site of low-income housing, crime and gang related shootings, with Salishan and tribal housing services nearby and a big population of people who live on the streets.

With a price tag of $310 million, the tribe is literally banking on the casino being a huge success. But despite when the casino actually opens, its impact on Tacoma is what’s really important and something that no one seems to be talking about.

Unlike the process for other major construction in town, the city has requested no impact studies for the new Emerald Queen. How will the casino affect motor vehicle traffic on the already congested roadways around the casino? How will it increase the burden on city services such as garbage pick-up, water and sewer? What of public safety needs for medical emergencies and those involving the Tacoma Police Department and first responders? And do Tacoma citizens want gaming to identify our city? These questions and more remain unanswered, leaving big unknowns for the Tacoma populace about exactly how this new casino will be an advantage, or disadvantage, for those who live and work here.  

A VEGAS-LIKE EXPERIENCE

Across the street from the casino is a traffic island in the middle of the road that poses a danger to those who live on the streets. 

While the new casino may purportedly bring a “Vegas-like” experience to Tacoma, it won’t be all glitz and glam as is evidenced by the state of the tribe’s current casinos. Of course, the EQC attracts a patronage of interested out-of-towners, couples out to enjoy a night on the town and those just looking for a place to unwind and do a bit of gambling or see a show. The casino also attracts a healthy number of people on low or fixed incomes lured by the enticements of winning some money. It’s a place where you can cash your welfare check and take your chance at losing it or not. 

Another group of EQC patrons is people who choose to live on the streets and use the casino as a home base. They can stay there all day and not even have to gamble. It doesn’t help either that the casino’s location is right in the heart of the Portland Avenue homeless population, bringing an ironic contrast between “Vegas-like” swank on the inside and people on the outside at a street corner holding a cardboard sign asking for help. 

The Land of the Give Us Your Money and Not So Generous People

There was a time when the Puyallup Tribe shared its wealth generously through donations and sponsorships, but over these recent years that fountain of giving has turned into a trickle. A recent example is the annual KING 5 Home Team Harvest where the tribe used to give a lot of money – but that ended in 2015 with their final donation of $50,000. In 2016, after 10 years the tribe stopped giving $850,000 in impact fees to the City of Fife, leaving that city to pick up the pieces. And last year, the tribe chose to give $500,000 to the Seattle Seahawks charity program rather than invest that money in charity efforts here in Tacoma. 

Former tribal chairman Bill Sterud presents a much smaller check in 2015 to Northwest Harvest than in prior years when the tribe donated half a million dollars a year. The tribe’s donations have dwindled in part to protect their gaming rights.

The point is that while the tribe takes in money from the community, giving back seems to be on unequal footing. This doesn’t bode well for giving back from casino earnings, which would seem considerable even though the tribe doesn’t share earnings information with the public. 

The tribe receives additional income as well from sources outside the reservation. Case in point: When the new northbound bridge over the Puyallup River was being planned, it was delayed for two years as the state negotiated with the tribe over impacts to the river’s water quality and the tribe’s fishing areas. It was all settled though an agreement that gave the tribe $9.5 million and three parcels of land worth an additional $3.8 million. 

Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s office and on the board of the Washington State Gambling Commission, once enjoyed receiving millions of dollars from the tribe for his various charities, as that amount dropped to $50,000 in 2018. The tribe also allows Troyer to use its warehouse for toy storage where the tribe’s riverboat is moored. 

In all reality, the tribe is a for-profit corporation, with money being the driving force in just about everything the tribe does. In order to maintain its programs for tribal members, especially the monthly $2,000 per-capita payouts to each and every tribal member, a certain amount of money must be taken in continuously. And as the tribal population keeps growing, that amount of money must increase exponentially. 

THE NUMBERS

Nevada

Fiscal year 2018

Tax revenues within Nevada’sGeneral Fund: $3.8 billion 

Hospitality industry contributions: $1.5 billion (38.9 percent of total)

Gaming taxes: $711.3 million (responsible for generating the majority of the industry-generated taxes, or 47.3 percent of total General Fund revenue generated by the industry)

Next largest contributor by the hotel-casino industry: sales and use tax at $389.1 million (25.9 percent of total General Fund revenue generated by the industry)

Washington State

In 2018, net gambling receipts for tribal gaming totaled $2,680,391,379 (estimated; Class III only, as authorized in tribal compacts).

Commercial: $323,093,100

Non-profit: $15,268,679

Horse Racing: $22,402,786 (Horse Racing Commission)

Lottery: $276,034,458 (WA Lottery)

TOTAL: $3,317,190,402

2018 Gross Gambling Receipts: $617,522,729 (includes commercial and non-profit licensees; does not include tribal casinos)

2018 Gambling Tax (Local): $28,978,820 (collected by local jurisdictions, not by Washington State Gambling Commission)

Tribal Contributions

Four types:

Community Impact

a. Up to 2% of table game net receipts; paid to government agencies impacted by casino

b. Distributions:

2015: $4.240 mil

2016: $5.066 mil

2017: $5.234 mil

Charitable Distributions

0.5% of Tribal Lottery System (TLS) net receipts; paid to non-profit/charitable organizations in WA

2015: $9.910 mil

2016: $10.510 mil

2017: $10.967 mil

Smoking Cessation and Prevention Contributions

a. 0.13% of Tribal Lottery System (TLS) net receipts; Paid to government or non-profit/charitable orgs. in WA; Cessation, Prevention, Education, Awareness, Treatment

2015: $2.298 mil

2016: $2.595 mil

2017: $2.628 mil

Problem Gambling Contributions

0.13% of Class III net receipts; paid to government or non-profit/charitable orgs. in WA; Education, Awareness, Treatment

2015: $2.581 mil

2016: $3.148 mil

2017: $3.334 mil

 

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