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The Coquille Indian tribe wants to build a new casino in Medford. They say it’ll provide needed jobs and contribute to the region’s economic growth. But lots of other folks are up in arms about it. They predict a slew of social and economic ills. The Cow Creek Indian tribe also fears the casino would drain business from their own casino. JPR’s Liam Moriarty takes a look at this controversial proposal -- who stands to gain, who stands to lose and what the stakes are for southern Oregon.

Medford Casino Proposal Pits Tribe Against Tribe

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Liam Moriarty/JPR
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The Coquille Indian tribe’s proposal to build a new casino in south Medford has garnered a lot of opponents. But perhaps none as vociferous as the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

The Cow Creek have spent a lot of energy -- and money -- rallying opposition to the Coquille proposal. In this final part of our series “Going For Broke,” JPR looks at how these two tribes came to be at loggerheads.

Coquille tribal Chair Brenda Meade says for the most part, her tribe’s on good working terms with the Cow Creek Band.

Brenda Meade: “We operate our housing programs together, our health centers. We are doing amazing things with diabetes prevention programs for Indian people. We disagree on this one economic development project.”

The Cow Creek folks don’t seem to have as cheery a view of inter-tribal relations with the Coquille.

Michael Rondeau: “It was as if someone came to our house and robbed our cupboards and now they’re inviting us to dinner.”

Michael Rondeau is tribal CEO for the Cow Creek.  The tribe operates the Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville, about an hour north of Medford on I-5. And Rondeau says a new casino down the road will do real harm to his people.

Michael Rondeau: “If this casino is allowed to move forward in the Medford area, it will cost the Cow Creeks 500 jobs and half of our revenue.”

Cow Creek elder Vera Jones told a public hearing in February what that would mean for her tribe.

Vera Jones: “The loss of revenue would directly and severely impact services my tribe provides to its members, to our children and to our elders.”

Coquille officials dispute that analysis. The tribe’s economic development head Judy Metcalf notes that the Coos tribe is building a Class 2 casino just down the road from the Coquille’s casino in North Bend. The Coquille, she says, are embracing that new competition rather than fighting it.

Judy Metcalf:” We think that’s going to be good for the community. It’s  going to make us do a better job at the service that we provide. And ultimately it gives the consumer a better choice.”

A Cow Creek spokesperson responds that if the Coquille really aren’t concerned about a new casino next door, they haven’t crunched the numbers.

With so much on the line, it shouldn’t be surprising that both tribes are running vigorous PR campaigns. They have dueling websites, dueling billboards along the highway near the proposed casino site and dueling ads.

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The Cow Creek tribe, which operates the Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville, displays this billboard near the site of the Coquille tribe's proposed casino in south Medford.

  Pro-Casino Ad: “More than 200 new jobs created in our area. With an annual payroll of over nine and a half million dollars, average salary and benefits of more than $41,000 per year. People are talking about The Cedars at Bear Creek. Join the conversation at Medfordwins.com.”

Anti-Casino Ad: “The Coquille say their new casino will create 200 new jobs.They say their average wage will be $41,000. In reality, there will be no new jobs. There will be a redistribution of jobs as local lottery businesses close.”

In early February, the Cow Creek ratcheted up the pressure by laying off more than 90 employees from their Seven Feathers casino. They said the move was at least partly in response to the need to tighten their belts to save money for a protracted legal battle.

Both tribes say they regret that the situation has come to this. Coquille chair Brenda Meade …Brenda Meade: “Tribe against tribe is not a good place for us. We are not ever interested in going to that place. We are here to take care of Indian people , and that’s what we’re going to do with this project.”

The Cow Creek’s Michael Rondeau says his tribe didn’t start this fight, but they’re committed to seeing it through.

Michael Rondeau: “We have a duty as a tribal government to protect the assets of our tribe. And that’s simply what we’re doing.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs environmental review of the Coquille project isn’t expected to be complete till well into 2016. Whatever the decision, there’s likely to be a lot of legal wrangling before the fate of the Medford casino is finally decided.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.