Chehalis Tribe pumped about new venture


ROCHESTER — Hundreds of members of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation gathered ceremoniously at the reservation's entrance between Rochester and Oakville Dec. 13, and watched as tribal chairman David Burnett pumped the first tank of gas at the reservation's new gas station for Mae Palmer, the oldest member still driving.

Between 200 and 300 members convened at the newly completed End of the Trail station, gathering around the fuel pumps and in the convenience store to celebrate the opening of the second major business on the reservation, which also houses the Lucky Eagle Casino.

The outpouring of members at the opening was a testament to the excitement felt by the community, according to Jim Sims, director of business enterprises for the tribe.

"The feeling is: It's our store. We're proud of it. We waited a long time for it," Sims said.

The project was approved by a vote of the tribe's general council, made up of every enrolled member in the tribe, which comprises about 620 people. Not every member lives on the reservation, however.

The store covers 6,000 square feet. It includes a deli, serving pizza, fried chicken and subs, as well as a room stocked with cartons of cigarettes.

Sims and the store's manager, Ron Meyers, have high hopes for the new enterprise.

"We think it'll do well," said Sims. "We're seeing a lot of folks coming to the casino for lunch or brunch who stop for gas on the way out."

The station also has diesel tanks, which will attract recreational vehicles, Meyers speculated: both those bound for the casino and those headed to the shore on U.S. Highway 12.

Although Meyers and Sims could not say how the profits earned by tribal businesses were circulated among individual members, they said that the money generated by both the casino and the gas station benefit the tribe generally.

"The success of the casino makes it possible for the tribe to make investments like this, and to support infrastructure and the Head Start program," as well as the reservation's medical and dental clinics, Sims said.

The new business is also an important source of employment for tribe members living on the reservation.

"It adds about 25 jobs for tribal members," said Meyers, who added the positions are full-time.

One employee, Cyrena Ortivez, 23, said she moved to End of the Trail from her previous job in day care. She earns the new state minimum wage of $7.01 per hour, but said the new job, as a cashier, offers better benefits than her old job, such as holiday pay.

"I like working here better; I like the atmosphere," she said of the store, where she has worked since it opened.

Another cashier, Willie Wells, 19, left his previous job at the tribe's other End of the Trail store, a much smaller grocery store near the tribal center.

The new End of the Trail is bigger, busier and more highly staffed, Wells explained.

"I like it here because there's a lot of people coming in, and more people working. It makes the time go by faster," he said.

Cartons of cigarettes are the biggest seller so far, he said. There is no state sales tax on items such as candy and soda, but there is tax on gas for non-tribal members.

Mike Hicks, a member of both the Quinault and Chehalis tribes, works in the deli section as a cook and a cashier, and said so far the store has seen a steady stream of customers.

"We're busy throughout the day," he said.

Hicks used to be employed in construction, and worked on the renovations to the Lucky Eagle Casino earlier this year. He would have followed construction jobs away from the reservation after the renovation work was completed, but chose to work at End of the Trail instead because of the convenience.

"This is a lot closer to home," he said.

He enjoys his job so far, he said, and thinks the store provides an essential service in the area.

"The community's pretty excited about the new store, and so are the workers," he said.

But some community members have been vocal in opposing the store's construction since it was conceived, and still think it is an unnecessary addition to a sensitive flood area.

The gas station, located on the corner of U.S. Highway 12 and Anderson Road, is in the midst of the Chehalis River flood plain in the Oakville area, which is a cause of worry for members of the Chehalis River Council.

"We were just concerned about the fact that that used to be an area that held a lot of water when it flooded. They put a lot of fill in there: it's hard for us to understand how that fill will not impact the neighbors," said Margaret Rader, who chairs the Chehalis River Council Board of Trustees.

"The water has to go somewhere, and gas stations are very vulnerable to flooding," she continued.

The council also has concerns about the widening and raising of Anderson Road, which the tribe is planning for this spring. The road, which is the main access route to the reservation and the casino, is frequently impassable owing to flooding.

According to Sims, the tribe hopes to raise the road by about 3½ feet at its lowest points, and to widen it.

Rader pointed to the cumulative effects of the gas station and the road widening, which, she said, will likely lead to even greater flooding.

"The two could not be considered together," but will compound each other, she stressed.

Dave Palmer, a neighbor of the new store, agreed.

"Raising Anderson Road plus construction of a gas station-fireworks stand-convenience store equals more flooding as displaced flood waters seek a way around these manmade barriers," Palmer states on a Web page he created.

Palmer also expressed concerns that the store would provide unfair competition for other local gas stations, and that it is an unsightly addition to the rural landscape.

"I think it's improper zoning to plunk down in the middle of rural agricultural land a service station whose only purpose is to attract gamblers," he said.

He explained he thinks the station is muscling into a niche already filled by nearby businesses.

"It's not there to provide a necessary service for anyone: there are two service stations there… one in Oakville, one in Rochester… who are paying taxes," he said. "The tribe's taking advantage of tribal trust land."

But other Oakville residents take a different stance.

Interviewed while having a lunch of fried chicken at End of the Trail Tuesday, Bob Schweitzer, a former Lucky Eagle employee, and his wife, Millie, said they like the store and don't think flooding will be an issue.

Millie Schweitzer explained the station shortens the distance she has to drive for gas and amenities, and said she understood the flood problem had been dealt with.

"I think they've got it under control," she said.

If so, the store is a useful addition to the neighborhood, she added.

"This makes it convenient for us to get gas," she said. "For the people in Oakville, I think it's very good."

Jennifer Latson covers rural Lewis County, South Thurston County and East Grays Harbor County for The Chronicle. She may be reached at 807-8245.