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Dorothy Christianson, a leader in the Citizens for Responsible

February 14, 1995

Dorothy Christianson, a leader in the Citizens for Responsible Economic and Environmental Development, fears that a casino would siphon business away from local restaurants and shops _ and doom many of them. Evidence from other recent casino boom towns backs her up: A University of Illinois researcher says sales of restaurants within a 30-mile radius of relatively new Indian casinos in Minnesota have slumped as much as 50 percent because gamblers tend to chow down where they ante up. Ms. Christianson’s view of Mr. Iacocca? ``I see him as a greedy sort of person who will make money on any situation,″ she says.

Local church leaders fear another sort of slump: moral. ``Gambling violates God’s laws against greed and covetousness,″ says Robert Sinner, pastor of North Bend’s Family Worship Center. The evangelical clergyman predicts ``broken homes, physical and mental-health problems, indebtedness, bankruptcy and crime.″ Mr. Sinner also can cite evidence: The state attorney in Deadwood, S.D., where some 80 casinos have opened since 1988 _ including one owned by Full House _ says area crime has doubled.

Mr. Iacocca, despite his legendary public-relations instincts at Chrysler, didn’t help the casino cause much on his one visit to the area, last fall. As always, he was witty: He joked that the chauffeured Cadillac didn’t have as much legroom as a Chrysler. He brightened further when Coos Bay Mayor Joanne Verger, who also owns the local Chrysler dealership, offered him a more comfortable car _ and indicated that the casino faced little opposition. ``Everyone was nice in Coos Bay, even the press,″ Mr. Iacocca jokes.

Casino detractors were less friendly once they later found out Mr. Iacocca had been in town. Apparently, his visit was a well-kept secret _ possibly, they suspect, to disguise the true level of opposition. Casino boosters deny that, but even as Mr. Iacocca was schmoozing with casino backers and the local press, Tom Matosec, an antiques dealer, was floating out in Coos Bay with his wife in a canoe and holding up a sign imploring: ``No casino.″ Onshore, a dozen other protesters waved signs of outrage without even knowing Mr. Iacocca was around.

``He snuck into town,″ Mr. Matosec says. ``We would have protested him if we had known he was there.″

Mr. Iacocca’s visit, the opponents say, fanned the controversy. North Bend officials recently had on file 70 letters from casino detractors and none from backers. ``I moved back to this area to escape the seamy life and guess what? You are bringing it all here!″ Marion C. Harris, a Coos Bay resident, protested in a typical letter. The anticasino citizens’ group says it has a petition bearing 540 signatures and has asked state and federal officials to intervene.

Other protesters seem especially disillusioned that Mr. Iacocca is involved. ``I was an Iacocca fan, and I’ve driven Chryslers,″ says Jean McNamar, a retired teacher. ``I used to respect him. Now I don’t respect him very much.″

Mr. Iacocca seems surprised by such complaints. ``How can anybody be against this if you can fulfill the promise of more jobs?″ he says. Reflecting on his visit, he says Coos Bay has plenty of allure. ``I was so damn impressed with the forest, and I love Dungeness crab,″ a local delicacy. Nor does he think the project will weaken local moral fiber. ``If people are going to drink and smoke, they’re going to gamble,″ he says. ``It’s human nature.″

Perhaps, but there is another wild card in the casino game: bad blood between the Coquilles and the Coos Indians. The Coos have always regarded the Coquilles as merely a branch of the Coos, and many historians agree. Both tribes were stripped of legal recognition in the 1950s by Congress, only to have it restored in the 1980s in deals that entitled each group to acquire 1,000 acres in the Coos Bay area. But while the Coos were pondering how to proceed, the Coquilles bought the proposed casino site _ horrifying the Coos because it sits in the heart of their ancestral land. The Coquilles lived farther south.

``We felt betrayed,″ says Don Whereat, a Coos leader.

Now, many Coos refuse to speak to Coquilles. Coos leaders appealed to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to block the casino plan, but Mr. Babbitt rejected their appeal earlier this month, clearing the Mill to open this year. Meanwhile, the Coos have received state permission to push for their own casino. They also are considering challenging the Coquille casino again, in civil court.

Coquille leaders say they are sorry that the Coos are upset but insist that they are a real tribe. True, about half of the 650 members the Coquilles claim don’t live anywhere near Coos Bay, and most are of highly mixed blood. For example, Mr. Anderson, a tall, fair-skinned man who played defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams in the late 1960s and later worked as an investment banker in Seattle, is 1-16th Coquille. But he displays words of wisdom from the Apache war chief Geronimo in his office. He calls the Coquilles bona fide Indians and adds that detractors ``just want us to sell beads and trinkets in our little teepees and look cute.″

Mr. Iacocca says he doesn’t know much about the tribal feud, but he and his partners certainly don’t think it will stand in their way. He considers the promise of jobs his ace in the hole. ``The bottom line in Coos Bay,″ he says, ``is who is going to replace the jobs when the lumber mills close down.″

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