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Ilani event center

Roy Wilson, a Cowlitz Tribe spiritual leader, is near the end of a long line of drummers entering the expansive new event center at the Ilani Casino, which officially opened Thursday.

Bill Wagner photos, The Daily News

For the first time in a more than a century, the Cowlitz Indian flag fluttered above the tribe’s own land on Thursday.

The flag-raising marked the first anniversary of the opening of the tribe’s Ilani Casino Resort and the unveiling of a new entertainment and meeting center, all located on the 156-acre reservation near Ridgefield in north Clark County.

Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall said the new entertainment center will continue the region’s long heritage as a spot where tribes and traders used to congregate.

“This is a gathering place for many tribes,” Iyall said, following an opening ceremony attended by media and tribal members. “We had great prosperity here long before the states and counties were ever created. Now it’s a gathering center again.”

The 30,000 square-foot facility is expected to host concerts, corporate meetings, conventions and trade shows. The ballroom can host up to 2,500 people or be divided into 30 smaller rooms for separate events.

The opening of the meeting center marks another step in the long journey to develop the reservation and casino-resort.

The Cowlitz Tribe, which historically inhabited much of Southwest Washington, refused in 1855 to sign a treaty with the U.S. government. The tribe wasn’t legally recognized by the U.S. Interior Department until 2000, following decades of campaigning.

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Ilani event center

Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall speaks to guests before the raising of the Cowlitz tribal flag for the first time over the Ilani Casino.

Efforts to build the casino met opposition from nearby cardrooms and some area officials who questioned the tribe’s historical ties to Clark County.

During Thursday’s ceremonial flag-raising, Cowlitz spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl thanked her ancestors for their patience.

“At this moment, (we) thank our ancestors and the great creator god for all the strength of endurance that we have had as Cowlitz people to stand here on this ground today,” she said.

Military veterans raised the Cowlitz flag, along with the U.S. and Washington State flags, to swelling chants and drum beats. Then members of the tribe led a procession into the casino, around the gaming floor, to the entrance of the adjoining entertainment center.

Among the speeches was a statement from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, read by a representative, which said the event center was an important investment in Southwest Washington.

“The jobs associated with the construction and ongoing operations of the facilities at Ilani have provided an economic boost to the entire region,” he said. “Congratulations to Chair Iyall and the entire Cowlitz Tribe on this very, very special day. I appreciate your confidence in the region and your commitment to its future vitality.”

Inside, the venue swirls with color and geometric designs. The carpet has dizzying patterns in red and maroon, and cubic yellow lights hang from the high ceilings.

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Ilani event center

The Cowlitz tribal flag, left, is prepared to be raised at the Ilani Casino for the first time, along with the U.S. and Washington state flags, at the beginning of ceremonies to celebrate the first year of operation and the new event center.

An aerial acrobat twirling in purple silk ribbons added a Las Vegas flair as Cowlitz members chanted traditional honor songs from an elevated stage.

Chairman Iyall said he hopes the new venue will provide a welcoming space for the community.

“In our event center, we have the ability to host a sit-down meal for 1,000 people. And I truly mean ‘hosting,’ because it is in our heart that each and every one of those (people) are guests that come to the event center and stay for a meal or for entertainment. We want to make them feel at home here,” he said, following the ceremony.

The cost of building the entertainment venue was included in the initial $510 million investment into the casino.

The casino and restaurants employ about 1,500 people, many of whom are from Clark and Cowlitz counties, Vice President of Marketing Tom Teesdale said Wednesday.

While he would not go into specific numbers, Teesdale said the casino has met both its financial obligations as well as projections that it would bring in 4.5 million visitors annually. President and General Manager Kara Fox-LaRose said the casino, which opened April 24, has thrived during its first year.

“We’ve certainly had tremendous growth over the past several months since we opened and got lots of great feedback from our guests,” Fox-LaRose said following the ribbon cutting. “This (unveiling event) was really about completing the space inside and being able to move forward and extend future business opportunities to the community.”

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The next step is developing plans for a hotel. Iyall said he hopes construction will begin next year.

“The most significant element of the day today was to display our colors and welcome all Cowlitz people,” Iyall said. “It means we’ve always been here. We were taken away and our land was taken, (but) now we’re here forever.”

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