After the casino: Q & A with Grand Ronde tribal chairman Reyn Leno

With annual casino revenues topping $70 million and an operating budget of more than $130 million, the 5,000-member Grand Ronde tribe is one of the more successful Native American tribes in the region.

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In June, the tribe began demolition on the Multnomah Greyhound Park in Wood Village, a property the tribe purchased last year.  In these edited excerpts, Grand Ronde Tribal Chairman Reyn Leno discusses possible plans for Greyhound Park, other casino and economic diversification projects and why the tribe recently decided to disenroll more than 100 members.

OB: What are your plans for the Greyhound Park?

Deconstruction has begun on the greyhound track, marking the first step to redevelopment. We’ve taken our first blush as what we will actually put there. The anchor piece will be the hotel. You’ve got the gateway to the Gorge; you’re close to the airport, and you’re in a new and growing community. People want to get outside of Portland but not get too far. We’re thinking a hotel with entertainment. We’d like to feed off of this property and into Spirit Mountain, and have Spirit Mountain feed into this property. [Guests would receive a discount for Spirit Mountain and vice versa.]

What sort of entertainment are you planning?

We’ve looked at what’s legal in the state of Oregon right now. We’ve looked at: is it going to be family entertainment, adult entertainment or a mix? We’ve looked at a winery, a brewery, all on one campus. Portland people like entertainment. We identified that’s what this property is going to be for us.

CYN28JrUQAAN6a6What about a casino?

A casino is not off the table for us, but it would be a challenge unless the rules change.

What’s the timeline for construction?

On the reservation, if we want to build a building, we make it a priority and build. But here, we have to deal with boards, licenses, permits. We’ve never really gone through the process. We’re ready to build.

And the required multi-family housing for building in Wood Village’s Town Center zone?

We’re actually working through those things right now. I think there is a small piece of multi-housing there, and we’ve identified a place to put to already.

The Tribe recently completed the first phase of $13 million renovations project at Spirit Mountain Casino, a new entrance that opened June 22. What’s the intent behind the project?

You need to keep [casinos] fresh; you need to keep them glitzy and glamourous to draw customers in. We recognized it was difficult for people to walk clear from the outside. We moved the poker room to get more games on the floor, where we’re putting quite a bit of money into a new atmosphere. The next phase is to go through the 250 motel rooms and refresh them.

How will casinos stay relevant as gambling goes online?

Well first, I think you don’t want to panic. We’ve been following Internet gaming since the beginning. There was a great concern to what it would do to brick and mortars. It just doesn’t seem like Internet gaming is getting off the floor to make the impacts that it once would. [There’s also a] different crowd in Internet gaming. It’s blue-collar people who like to have the experience at an actual brick and mortar casino. 

Oregon is a hotbed for renewable energy development. Is the tribe considering expanding into green energy?

We’ve had some presentations on it, but that’s a very difficult field. It seems like everybody has something to throw at you. Like the pot industry right now. People say you’re going to make money; you’re not going to make money. Economic development is difficult for tribes because unless you have an economic development department — we had one but [the director] left. We’re hoping [the Wood Village property] does open the door for some projects in Portland. Before we were a casino tribe, we were good at forest land development.

The Tribal Court upheld the Grand Ronde’s 2013 decision to disenroll 86 members from one family and 115 members total. That case is now before an appeals court. 

Enrollment has nothing to do with the financial side of the tribe. We have enrollment criteria; basically, the membership asked for an audit of enrollment. We have about 5,300 tribal members. In that audit it was found there was one family with about 80 people, and other [members] scattered. [The 86 members from one family trace their heritage to Chief Tumulth, who signed the Grand Ronde treaty that created the reservation in 1855. OPB has more on the background on this case.] It ended up 115 people were disenrolled because they did not meet the criteria in our constitution. The cases have gone to court. One judge has already deemed they were not tribal. It’s in appeals court. We’re waiting on that decision.

How are members enrolled accidentally?

That’s all part of the legal case, I wouldn’t comment because it’s in appeals. But you’ve got to meet a blood minimum. You’ve got to show your blood lines going back 150 years to when the tribe began. 

The tribe has an endowment fund that pays for housing, health insurance and college. What is the status of the endowment? 

I think [the endowment is] one of our most important pieces of the tribe. When we were restored in 1983 we weren’t given money or anything else. Our tribal council at that time thought: What would be the most important part to make sure the Tribe goes on forever. They set up endowments for things like housing and health care. When the casino came, we didn’t hand out [revenues to members] for 5-6 years, so the endowment has a lot of money. They’re basically a business for the tribe. They provide a lot of stability. We don’t borrow from anybody. We owe ourselves money.