North Bend resident Frank Szopa plays one of the over 700 slot machines in The Mill casino operated by the Coquille Tribe. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell

Worth the risk?

A casino in Medford could be a windfall for the local economy even as it potentially strains city services and increases emergency calls for local police and fire.

The Coquille Indian Tribe, which runs The Mill Casino in North Bend, hopes to open a second casino with more than 500 video gaming machines in Medford. It has purchased Kim's Restaurant and Roxy Ann Lanes along South Pacific Highway and agreed to lease the Bear Creek Golf Course nearby.

How a Medford casino would affect city services — including police, fire, roads and sewers — is being studied by local officials. A look at The Mill could provide some insights as officials weigh the impacts of a smaller gambling facility in Medford.

In Coos County, the casino and Coquille tribe generate $125 million and create 1,292 jobs, according to direct and indirect impacts measured in a study prepared for the tribe by ECONorthwest of Eugene.

The casino also generates the most police calls for any one location in North Bend — 640 calls annually.

North Bend police Chief Steve Scibelli said so many calls could have taxed his department, but the casino provides $400,000 to the city annually to staff two additional police officers and extra firefighters.

"If they weren't paying anything, I would have a different opinion," Scibelli said. Most of the calls aren't serious, with disorderly conduct topping the list. Sometimes, winning gamblers in their excitement forget their ticket in the machine and another patron will steal it, he said.

Scibelli said security officers and surveillance equipment in the casino help police secure convictions for crimes.

"Security is excellent," Scibelli said, noting he sometimes hires security guards from the casino on his own police force. "I think they are pretty no-nonsense."

Police noticed a slight increase in calls when the casino began allowing drinking on the gaming floor in 2008, he said.

He said that averaging two calls a night isn't that unexpected for a casino that sees that many visitors annually.

Before the North Bend casino opened in 1995, local residents hotly debated the idea.

"Everybody had strong opinions when it went in, but now that it's in, everybody has accepted it," North Bend resident Coro Dyanne said.

The 70-year-old owner of Pacific Antiques and Books said gambling has become a problem for many in the state, however.

"It's an addiction," she said.

Many visitors to The Mill Casino declined to be interviewed, saying they didn't want their spouse or family to know they were gambling.

Bob Litton, an 81-year-old who lives on a sailboat in Coos Bay, downplayed the notion that casinos are a particular problem for gamblers.

"You can play the state's lottery and be addicted," Litton said.

He said he thinks it's ridiculous that only the government and the tribes are allowed to offer gambling in the state.

"I want to be able to buy some land and build my own casino," he said, while acknowledging he actually couldn't afford it.

To open a casino in Medford, tribal officials must obtain federal approval to designate their 2.4 acres as reservation land, a process they hope takes only a year but can take up to six years, they said.

They said it would take less than a year to get the bowling alley remodeled and the casino operational after federal approval.

But the Cow Creek Umpqua Tribe, which owns Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville, has vowed to fight the Coquille tribe's move into Medford, saying it violates a long-standing agreement that the nine tribes in the state have only one casino each.

Despite the opposition, the seven-member Coquille Tribal Council is determined to open a casino in Medford, saying it can trace its ancestry back to Klamath and Jackson counties.

"My family is from the Klamath area," said Sharon Parrish, a representative on the tribal council. She said she can trace her lineage back to the early 1800s in Klamath County.

Parrish was one of several tribal members who fought for federal recognition of the Coquille, granted in 1989 under Public Law 101-42, also known as the Coquille Restoration Act.

Parrish said other tribal members have ancestors who lived in Jackson County. About 100 of the nearly 1,000 current members of the tribe live here, the second highest membership behind Coos County.

Tribal representative Tori Ann Brend said her father told her that her family was related to the Rogue River Indians, noting that the ancestry and history of the tribe has been passed down orally by tribal elders.

The tribe hopes to augment its services for Jackson County tribal members, potentially leasing or purchasing additional buildings for a community center and other services.

Tribal members point out that 6 percent of the net revenues of the casino are devoted to community projects, such as a community garden in Myrtle Point, a sewer line in North Bend and renovation of local buildings.

When casino revenues in North Bend dropped during the recession, the annual revenues devoted to community projects also dropped, from more than $600,000 annually to about $345,000 in the past few years.

"That's how we know our money was way down," tribal representative Kippy Robbins said.

In addition, the tribe is concerned that if a tsunami ever hit the coast it could severely damage or destroy the casino, which would affect funding for the 1,000-acre reservation near Charleston that has a community center, early childhood education programs, elder care, health care and other services funded by both the federal government and the tribe.

"We've got all our eggs in one basket," Robbins said.

The tribal council members said a rough estimate of how much each tribal member receives in direct support through programs funded by the casino is about $3,000.

Ed Metcalf, chairman of the tribal council, said that when casinos first open they have tremendous growth in the first few years, but after a time revenues plateau.

He said he expects his tribe will require additional revenue to keep pace with births and with new members who go through the process of proving their ancestral connection.

"In 20 years, the tribe could double," he said. "We need more assets."

Tribal councilors say they have no plans to increase the size of the Medford casino, pointing out they are limited because of the size of the property.

They plan to keep the Medford location as a Class II versus a Class III casino.

Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, a Class III casino is allowed slot machines, blackjack, craps and roulette. A Class II casino is allowed gaming machines only, no tables. Seven Feathers and The Mill Casino are both Class III gaming facilities.

Tribal councilors said they plan to meet with Medford officials soon to discuss the impacts on city services from the casino.

Visitors of The Mill Casino say they don't notice any criminal behavior and speak highly of the hotel and restaurants.

Ray Danielson, a 70-year-old Cathalmet, Wash., resident, said, "People have weird ideas about gambling."

He said he's never seen any problems with safety or crime. "They have a lot of security here," he said.

Danielson said Medford residents should welcome a casino.

"I think it's a lovely idea," he said.

Frank Szopa, a 66-year-old North Bend resident, said he formerly worked as assistant security supervisor at Harrah's Lake Tahoe.

"Even up there with all the casinos, there's no crime," he said.

Szopa said casinos are a good pastime for him as a retiree, saying his gambling in North Bend and Florence has paid off.

"In the last 10 years I have won $70,000," he said. "I won $27,000 in one month."

He plans to travel to Medford to check out the casino once it opens.

But Szopa knows the expansion plans by the Coquille tribe won't sit well with other tribes.

"I said to my wife, 'Seven Feathers isn't going to be happy with this,' " he said. "But, I think competition between casinos is good."

Szopa said The Mill Casino appears to be operated well.

"It's a damn good casino," Szopa said. "If you don't like losing, just don't go."

Some workers and businesses expressed concern about the casino, denouncing the gambling and the overall operation, but declined to disclose their names, fearing repercussions.

But Dorothy Sim, a 66-year-old North Bend resident who has worked in the casino's gift store for 17 years, said, "If it wasn't for this, I would be saying, 'Welcome to Walmart.' "

She said she hadn't worked for 30 years before getting the casino job, noting it provides good health benefits.

"They had no qualms about hiring someone who was almost 50," she said.

Former Coos Bay Mayor Joe Benetti said he had concerns and expressed reservations about the casino before it was built.

"I was hesitant at first," said the 58-year-old who co-owns Benetti's Italian Restaurant in Coos Bay.

He said the casino has been helpful with food banks and other community projects. "They've been a good community partner," he said. "I haven't seen any relation between crime and the casino."

Visitors who spend the night at the casino often come to his restaurant, and the casino provides a shuttle service. Employees of the casino also patronize his business, he said.

Sandy Brouwers, a 64-year-old Dana Point, Calif., resident, said the casino is one of her favorite places to visit.

"I don't lose a lot of money here," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email

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