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Wednesday, July 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tulalip Tribes' clout on the rise

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Tulalip tribal Treasurer Chuck James riffled through a stack of checks 5 inches high and couldn't stop grinning.

The Tulalip Tribes were making their annual charitable contributions at a public reception earlier this month. With sunlight streaming through the amphitheater at the center of their growing retail complex, Quil Ceda Village, the Tulalips gave $2.3 million to local charities and law-enforcement groups.

Although they are required by state law to donate 2 percent of their gambling profits to help offset the impacts of their gaming operations, the tribal-board members who spoke seemed genuinely pleased — and a little awestruck — at the magnitude of their giving.

"It you'd told me 14 years ago that we would give away more than $22 million [since 1993], I would have said you're dreaming," said 80-year-old tribal Chairman Stan Jones.

A statue of a flexing orca in front of the tribes' $78 million casino might stand as a symbol of the Tulalips' growing political and economic clout.

Next week, the Tulalips plan to break ground on a 12-story, $75 million luxury hotel adjacent to the casino. Tribal leaders hope the Quil Ceda development that began with Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores in 2001 will become a destination tourist resort ready to attract visitors to the 2010 Winter Olympics in British Columbia.

The tribes also are negotiating with the developers of the Seattle Premium Outlets mall to add 50 stores to the reservation's current collection of 107 designer-name shops. Over the next few years, the tribes also plan to build a $10 million museum and a $26 million administration building, the latter on Tulalip Bay to consolidate under one roof dozens of tribal offices and services.

Quil Ceda Village General Manager John McCoy noted that of the 2,000 acres adjacent to the freeway that the tribes have designated for commercial development, only 500 acres have been touched. McCoy wants to add an office park and light industry. Suppliers for Boeing's new 787 are atop his wish list.

Former tribal-board member Les Parks said that when the projects on the Tulalips' drawing board were added up last year, the total came to more than $450 million in development.

The tribes estimated their net income for 2005 to be about $102 million, according to a report in the tribal newspaper, the See-Yaht-Sub. That's up from an estimated $38 million in 2000.

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"In terms of investments and capital construction, they are now our number-one developer," said Debbie Emge, the vice president of the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County.

But the Tulalips are by no means the only major developer in the north-county area. In the fall, a new commercial center, Lakewood Crossing, is due in the Smokey Point area off Interstate 5. Retailers Costco Wholesale, Target, Best Buy and several other national retail and restaurant chains will open to serve the area's growing population.

The population of the northwest portion of the county, roughly north of Everett to Skagit County and including the Lake Stevens area, grew from 105,897 in 1990 to 175,046 in 2005, according to Tim Koss, a Snohomish County senior planner and demographer.

The Tulalips, with their status as a sovereign nation and their sizable economic clout, have become a lightning rod for people who decry the rapid development and almost-paralyzing traffic congestion in the Marysville area.

These critics say that when it comes to taxes, mitigation fees and environmental regulations, the tribes play by different rules.

"There's no thought, no planning, no regulation," said Kim Halvorson, who is challenging McCoy this fall for his seat in the state Legislature. "They build whatever they want on their land."

Shifted from fishing

In 1988, when the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allowed tribes to open casinos on their reservations, the Tulalips' acreage along the freeway was little more than grass and spent mortar shells from a former munitions depot. It also had been a Boeing test site.

Chairman Jones recruited McCoy, a Tulalip who had spent summers on the reservation as a boy, to give up a management position with a high-tech firm in Washington, D.C., and come home to manage the tribes' businesses. In 1990, McCoy said, tribal unemployment and its high-school-dropout rate were both around 65 percent.

Tribal elders had a vision of a commercial development along I-5, McCoy said. What it would look like, they didn't know.

"We needed a diverse economy. We couldn't live off fish and shellfish anymore," McCoy said.

He runs the Quil Ceda Village operation from a prefabricated building made up of three double-wide trailers. From these modest offices, he oversees the village's 169 employees, who provide all the services of a city to the shopping and casino complex, including water, a sewage system, garbage collection, permitting, landscaping, road maintenance and telecommunications.

McCoy received his business training during 20 years in the Air Force and still sports a flat-top crew cut to complement his outwardly stern military bearing. Once he left the service, his experience with new technologies led to a job with Unisys, a technology-consulting business, where he supervised as many as 200 employees.

Part of McCoy's motivation for diversifying the tribal economy is so that the next generation of leaders doesn't have to leave the reservation to make a living. Two recent additions to McCoy's staff are young women who attended college with the tribes' financial assistance.

Deborah Parker-George and Theresa Sheldon both say they are attracted to the tribes' vision of economic independence. Parker-George remembers family members unable to find work in Marysville because of widespread discrimination against Indians. The line at the grocery in town would suddenly close when her mother approached the register, she said.

Sheldon recalled starting school at Tulalip Elementary with about 150 other children. Ten graduated from high school with her. She noted proudly that 52 graduated from local high schools this year and that many plan to go to college.

"Our children will have opportunities our parents didn't because our leaders have created jobs and a diverse economy," Parker-George said.

Although McCoy credits his elders and the tribal Board of Directors for providing the vision that has become Quil Ceda Village, others praise McCoy for translating that vision into 75-year lease agreements and multimillion-dollar revenues.

Former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel said McCoy brings an orderly, rational mind and an uncommon "stick-to-itiveness" to the tribes' business endeavors. Over nearly a decade of quarterly meetings between Tulalips and county officials, Drewel said, McCoy presented straightforward information about the tribes' plans, their progress and their ultimate employment.

"You could take to the bank anything he told you," Drewel said.

The Puget Sound Business Journal named McCoy its 2005 Executive of the Year in December, citing the tribes' progressive vision for economic development and McCoy as "the heavy lifter to make that vision happen."

But not everyone is a fan.

Halvorson, who is running for a second time for the 38th District House seat held by McCoy, is critical of McCoy's dual or even triple roles as legislator, tribal member and real-estate developer.

Halvorson noted the tribes' growing influence on state politics. In 2004, the Tulalips made $1.5 million in political contributions. Though the bulk went to fighting Initiative 892, which would have expanded non-Indian casinos, about $300,000 went to candidates, split 60-40 in favor of Democrats.

McCoy said he stopped directing the Tulalips' political contributions after he was elected to the Legislature in 2002 but that he still shares his opinions about candidates.

Halvorson, who lives in a waterfront house at Priest Point on the reservation, said so many other non-Indian residents call her about issues of tribal authority that she jokingly refers to herself as "the mayor."

Halvorson said the tribes "never laid down the infrastructure" for the growth and traffic that would follow development of Quil Ceda Village. She noted that the Tulalips pay no impact fees to the city or county, as do other developers.

"They've created problem after problem," she said. "Overdevelopment is the real issue here."

She's not the only one concerned about traffic in the area.

"Health-and-safety issue"

Mike Warden, the president of Quil Ceda Tanning, east of the freeway at 88th Street Northeast and State Avenue, is moving the family's 75-year-old leather-tanning business because traffic prevents customers from getting into or out of the retail store. He fears that in an emergency, aid or police cars wouldn't be able to reach his employees.

"It's become a health-and-safety issue here because of all the cars stacked up outside," Warden said.

But he stopped short of blaming the Tulalips' development. He noted that bad traffic is endemic across the county because of the past decade's rapid growth.

"I'm more likely to say that infrastructure wasn't considered in the whole area," he said.

In Marysville, City Planner Gloria Hirashima said there are differences in the state and tribal systems for planning for development. A new Wal-Mart proposed for the east side of Marysville, for instance, will be required to make $5 million in road improvements. Projects in the city also go through extensive public hearings and may face legal challenges because of their environmental impacts or effects on private-property owners, she said.

By contrast, she said, the tribes can make decisions among their members, and they're not required to pay for mitigation in advance of development. But the Tulalips do follow federal environmental regulations, and they have a professional planning department that determines appropriate land use.

McCoy countered complaints by pointing to the tribes' state-of-the-art sewage-treatment system, the new roads that surround Quil Ceda Village and the high value the Tulalips place on environmental stewardship.

In all, McCoy said, the tribes have spent close to $60 million on infrastructure improvements and have plans for more.

And McCoy doesn't accept responsibility for all the traffic around Marysville.

"What happens on the other side of the freeway isn't my fault. I didn't build all those houses," he said.

Caldie Rogers, the director of the Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce, said that what the area is now experiencing are "the problems of success." She said the tribes have worked with the city and county to seek state and federal road-improvement dollars.

In addition, she said, the flood of financial success enjoyed by the Tulalips is benefiting the entire area.

Marysville last year saw a 16 percent jump in sales-tax revenue, much of it from shoppers attracted to the casino and outlet mall exploring dining and shopping opportunities in town, she said.

McCoy said the tribes don't envision much more retail expansion and will focus now on attracting office tenants and manufacturers. The more diverse its economy, the more sustainable its financial health.

The Tulalips have gone from employing 350 people in 1990 to employing 2,400 today, about 60 percent non-Indian. Any tribal member who wants a job can find one, McCoy said. Currently, 2,600 of the Tulalips' 3,700 members live on the reservation.

At the amphitheater ceremony, McCoy stood next to tribal Treasurer James, calling out the recipients of the $2.3 million in charitable contributions. He thanked the social-service agencies, the police and fire departments, and the elected county officials for their good works.

As alder smoke drifted through the crowd from salmon being grilled nearby — the traditional salmon dinner being readied for their guests — McCoy offered a promise to his neighbors in the region.

"We've always been here. We're not going anywhere. We need to work and play together."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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