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Originally published October 31, 2011 at 9:50 PM | Page modified November 1, 2011 at 8:32 AM

Tukwila's push to ban casinos really a fight over city's values

Tukwila is immersed in an old-fashioned brouhaha over an advisory measure on the Nov. 8 ballot about whether to ban casinos.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Tukwila is a city of 19,000 that doesn't have an old-fashioned town square around which the place grew.

It's a collection of annexed residential nooks and chunks of commercial land, sliced up by interstates 5 and 405. Here, you're never far away from the whooshing sounds of traffic.

But Tukwila is immersed in an old-fashioned brouhaha very much involving those ephemeral small-town values: an advisory measure on the Nov. 8 ballot about whether to ban casinos.

To outsiders, it might seem a bit odd that the casinos have generated so much controversy. Tukwila prides itself in welcoming commerce.

The city's best-known landmark is Westfield Southcenter mall, in a valley that used to have truck farms. Some 1,200 businesses in that valley are within city limits.

Each day, Tukwila officials say, 150,000 people come to shop and work in their city.

Still, Tukwila officials also boast of their "small-town warmth."

That warmth didn't extend to cardrooms.

In February, the City Council voted to go casino-free.

Dennis Robertson, 67, a retired computer-systems manager, was one of the council members who voted for the ban.

He says of casinos, "If I didn't want one near my house, how could I vote to have one near another citizen's home?"

The vote was 4-3 for banning the casinos. It was so close, Robertson says, that the council decided it better ask the citizenry how they felt about it. By then, the council also had received a petition with more than 350 signatures asking that the casinos remain.

In 2010, at a time of budget cutbacks, the city collected $2.1 million in gambling taxes from casinos.

"It will be difficult to make up. But Bellevue, the city of Seattle, neither of them have casinos within their city limits," Robertson said. "They seem to be surviving. Families have to cut back. What can I say. Will it be hard? Yes. Impossible to make up? No."

Cardrooms

Three cardrooms (Riverside, Great American Casino, Golden Nugget) are operating in Tukwila, and another (Macau Casino) is on the way.

But to comply with state law, the voters have been given this choice:

Either shut down all the casinos (by January 2016, to give the cardrooms time to recoup their investments), or allow anyone with a restaurant to apply for a cardroom license.

To some, it might appear the main characters in all this stepped out of the movie, "Footloose."

"What kind of legacy do we want to leave our children?" asked Jenny McCoy, head of Citizens for a Casino-Free Tukwila http://www.freetukwila.org/. "It's an unhealthy approach to raising revenue."

She is 57, married, with three grown children, the office manager at a local church and a web designer. She says she believes gambling isn't fit for Tukwila.

She and her husband, Tim McCoy, an IT manager, ended up in Tukwila in 1997 after spending three years in Russia setting up churches as missionaries for the Calvary Chapel.

"Most people don't understand the character of Tukwila. It's very close-knit," McCoy said. "By the day, we do have 150,000 people work and shop here. But at night it's a small town. There is no place a casino would be located that wouldn't be in the backyard of a residential community."

There also are those in this small town who feel otherwise.

It truly is a battle of values.

A group called Families for a Better Tukwila is headed up by Chuck Parrish. He is 61, runs an Internet forum called Tukwila Talk http://www.tukwilatalk.com/ and, as he explains, likes to involve himself in local politics.

For those who believe gambling is unsavory, Parrish's group says on its website, "Live and let live — I won't tell you how to live your life, don't you try to tell me how to enjoy living mine."

Still, for all of his support for the Tukwila casinos, Parrish says he's not particularly interested in gambling.

He just doesn't want other people, particularly City Council members who voted to ban casinos, "injecting their moral values into this."

Contributions

Parrish says he didn't mind at all that Tukwila casinos have put in most of $43,000 in contributions to Families for a Better Tukwila, according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission.

In contrast, Citizens for a Casino-Free Tukwila has received only $2,100 in contributions — $50 here, $65 there — from individuals. That $2,100 also includes McCoy listing $516 as an in-kind contribution for designing the website for the campaign.

Why shouldn't the casinos fight back? Parrish asks.

"All these businesses are legal businesses," he said. "They've literally done nothing wrong in our community. The $2 million question: What will they cut?"

The Tukwila Police Officer's Guild has weighed in in support of the casinos, "especially in these tough financial times ... "

According to the Police Department, in 2010, the casinos combined had 55 police-case reports, in comparison to 8,784 citywide and 1,432 for Westfield Southcenter alone.

The casinos provide their own security.

Park at the Great American Casino of Tukwila, one of four casinos Great American has in Puget Sound, and you see numerous signs that the lot is under 24-hour surveillance.

There are 100 cameras at the Tukwila location, says David Fretz, president of the four Great American Casinos. "We could probably read what you're typing in your laptop," he said.

Grandfather clauses

Tukwila wouldn't be having this vote if, back in December, it hadn't received an application to establish the Macau Casino in what had been a Denny's on Southcenter Boulevard.

Before that, the city had an ordinance that grandfathered in existing casinos and prohibited new ones.

But, according to the state's Gambling Commission, "cities cannot pick or choose the locations where gambling can occur nor are grandfather clauses typically legal."

It's true that a number of cities such as Renton have zoning ordinances as to where casinos can be established. Those ordinances have not been challenged in court.

Maybe there have been no challenges, commission spokeswoman Susan Arland says, because prospective casino owners "want to be good partners with the city and don't want to start off with litigation."

To further make it unpalatable for cardrooms to move before the ban takes effect in 2016, the council in September passed another casino ordinance.

It increases the gambling tax from the current 10 percent of gross revenue to 15 percent if the number of cardrooms exceeds five.

And the tax goes to 20 percent if the number of cardrooms exceeds six.

For Parrish, such high taxes are enough incentive to keep out more casinos.

Maybe.

Certainly, cardrooms are a lucrative business for some operators.

Yet, as the economy has tanked, the number of cardrooms in this state has gone from 96 in 2005 to 71 in 2010.

The Riverside Casino last year reported to the state total revenues of $10 million, expenses of $8.6 million, for a net income of near $1.5 million. The Great American Casino in Tukwila reported revenues of $8.2 million, expenses of $7.2 million, for a net income of $1 million.

Some of those expenses were for the 425 people the casinos say they employed. A number of those employees went to the City Council to testify.

Christy Henry is the casino manager at Great American. She is a single mom with a 15-year-old daughter and drives to her job from Olympia.

Her job, Henry says, has made it possible for her to afford to "live on 5 acres with horses" and let her daughter take part in rodeos.

Henry says addressing the council was "nerve-wracking."

What happens if the Great American in Tukwila closes?

"There is only one casino manager," Henry said. "It's difficult to find a job."

On her website, McCoy answers, "Most of these jobs are not held by Tukwila residents. There are still more than four years for casino employees to find work elsewhere ... "

As Dennis Robertson talks to his constituents — he's running for re-election — he hears plenty about the casinos.

And?

"It's perfectly split, 50-50," he said. "I wouldn't bet on this."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237

or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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