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Why The Flying Lark will not Hurt the Tribes

By Jay Meredith

Most in Grants Pass are excited about the new entertainment venue called The Flying Lark, which is on the verge of opening soon right next to the county fairgrounds.  That’s because we know that one of our locals, Travis Boersma, successful co-founder of the famous Dutch Bros, will bring the same “Dutch Luv” to this venture, and it will be another huge boost for the local economy.  Travis and his organizations love this community, and he has a well-documented list of extremely generous community donations over the years.

The Flying Lark will also bring well over 200 needed jobs to Grants Pass and help keep horse racing alive in Oregon – unless the state of Oregon shuts it down over the next month.  Tribes in Oregon seem to have successfully lobbied Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Racing Commission and now certain state legislators to kill this project before it even gets off the ground.  The Flying Lark unfortunately has had to sue the state to make the overdue license decision to allow historic racing machines at the facility, similar to what Portland Meadows had for years when it was in operation.  The painfully long licensing process has already forced the Flying Lark to issue layoff notices to more than 200 people that already have jobs or job offers.

An opinion released by the Oregon Attorney General’s office on Friday, Feb. 11, suggests that the state considers the venture to be an unlawful casino.  In other words, the “fix” is in, and our state’s top political leaders, led by the governor’s office and the Oregon attorney general, are exerting extreme pressure on the Oregon Racing Commission to deny the placement of historic racing machines at The Flying Lark.

I know several people who already work there and one very special young man who has been given a job offer to work there.  This young man is a developmentally disabled adult with a range of diagnoses, including moderate mental retardation, autism and epilepsy.  This young man also happens to love our local horse races.  His mom tells us he interviewed for this job, with some assistance from a job coach, and got the offer.  Mom says, “When he got the job, he came home SOOOOO excited.  He wanted to call everyone, his grandparents, his aunts, his sisters, my friends, his friends.  He was overjoyed by the opportunity to work at The Flying Lark, a place that corresponded to something that he enjoyed.”

The Flying Lark is employing adults with developmental disabilities in forward facing, good paying, meaningful positions that allow them to participate in their community and engage in life just like their typically developed peers do.  This is one of the many examples of the “Dutch Luv” brand hard at work, yet again.

That is, unless the tribes have their way. 

But this should not be viewed as the tribes against The Flying Lark.  The Flying Lark is not much competition for the tribes’ gaming operations.  The only real competition for tribe gaming actually comes from the State of Oregon itself.  It’s called the Oregon Lottery, and it boasted $1.3 billion in revenues just in the last fiscal year alone.  That’s billion, with a “B.”  Fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, 2021, was a record year by far for the Oregon Lottery – right in the toughest times for the COVID pandemic.  The Oregon Lottery earned 13% MORE revenue in fiscal 2021 versus 2020.

There are dozens of mini-casinos all over Grants Pass and in any busy urban area in Oregon.  These establishments might prefer to call themselves restaurants or bars, but many of them are also mini-casinos.  All those video lottery machines you see in restaurants and bars are Oregon Lottery machines, and these establishments get a cut of the state’s gambling operation.  Those video lottery machines, similar to what you find in casinos, make up two-thirds of revenue of the Oregon Lottery system.  And last fiscal year the Oregon Lottery also launched a new mobile sports betting program called Scoreboard.

In the two main Grants Pass ZIP codes, there are 79 Oregon Lottery retailers, 38 of them having video lottery machines.  Said another way, we already have 38 state-operated mini-casinos for a population of about 60,000 people in and around Grants Pass.  Is one more mini-casino like operation, being a 45-minute drive or more to the closest tribal casino, really going to make that much of a difference to the tribes’ bottom line?  I don’t think so.

The tribes should turn their attention to the only real competition in Oregon, the behemoth that is the Oregon Lottery.  And the tribes should be extremely concerned with the state’s recent move to mobile wagering.

Years ago, I was involved in a grassroots effort to put forward a statewide vote on a constitutional measure that would reallocate some of the net proceeds of the Oregon Lottery.  This was to help gain local control on how some of the Oregon Lottery proceeds are spent (it would have helped Josephine County law enforcement in our case).  We found out how hard and expensive it is to do a true grassroots campaign for a statewide vote.  But our measure polled well (nearly two-thirds of Oregonians would have supported it), and we learned a lot.  We even successfully battled the Oregon Supreme Court for a good ballot title.

With volunteer help, or help from the legislature putting it on the ballot, a statewide constitutional lottery spending measure could be put forward (at a cost of $500,000 or less) to share, say, 5% of the net lottery proceeds with the tribes.  And I bet Oregonians would approve it.  While we’re at it, let’s also add a 5% allocation to counties for local control of some lottery funds, so each county can address their highest priority local public needs.  Tribes and The Flying Lark, give me a call!

The bottom line is, if approved for historic racing machines, The Flying Lark will do very “good things” for Grants Pass, but not at the expense of the tribes. 

Jay Meredith, CPA served as the Finance Director for the City of Grants Pass for more than 10 years. He now serves as CFO of American Mineral Research, Inc.