Welcome to La Center? Welcome to the Cowlitz Indian Reservation? Tribe, city council debate roundabout signage

LA CENTER — “We want the materials and the landscape to say, ‘Welcome, you’re home.’”


That’s what Mike Meyers, a principal landscape architect with the Newport, Calif.-based Lifescapes International, told La Center city leaders more than 18 months ago.


Meyers was describing his firm’s landscape design work on the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s mega-casino project and corresponding construction at the La Center Interstate 5 exit.


“We want to take the ideas we’re working on for the casino … and bleed it into the landscape on the traffic roundabouts, so that they become a gateway that celebrates the town as much as the casino,” Meyers told the group of La Center city councilors, planners and other public figures who had gathered to see what the Cowlitz tribe had planned for their $510 million casino project and for the I-5 junction that leads not only to the Cowlitz Indian Reservation and ilani casino resort, but also to the small city of La Center.


The plans called for the construction of two roundabouts near the I-5 junction — one on the east side, leading toward La Center, and one on the western side closest to the Cowlitz Reservation land. Inside each roundabout, a monument would welcome visitors to La Center.

“The roundabouts will be the jewels of this whole package,” Meyers told the councilors in June of 2015. “We will use native plants … and we strongly believe that this should look organic, not contrived.”


Most city councilors said they liked the preliminary designs and were looking forward to seeing the finished product.

Construction at the Interstate 5 junction near the city of La Center and the Cowlitz Indian Reservation has been going gangbusters in preparation for the planned mid-April opening of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s new mega-casino. Video by Mike Schultz

The design plans went into the finalised Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the city of La Center and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and that was the end of the roundabout design discussions — or so La Center leaders thought.


Last month, several councilors said they heard from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s attorney, Phil Harju, that there might be some conflict with the proposed monument designs.


Harju says the tribe wants to see the monument on the west side changed to reflect the nearby entrance to the reservation.


Instead of having a “Welcome to city of La Center” sign on the westernmost monument, tribal members want that monument, which is closest to the Cowlitz Indian Reservation, to greet visitors to the reservation land.


But La Center leaders say they don’t particularly want to change things at this late of a date.


“When the interchange design was discussed, it was a public process,” says La Center Mayor Greg Thornton. “There were a lot of discussions and decisions were made. There were to be two roundabouts at the interchange on the east and west sides and ‘Welcome to La Center’ (signs) on both sides. That’s the way the discussions went and that’s what in the Intergovernmental Agreement.”


Thornton says that changing the IGA isn’t exactly a simple matter.  


“As of right now, we should stay with (what’s in the IGA). If the tribe and the council can come up with a different alternative, that would be great, but because this is part of the (IGA), it would require action by the council and the tribe.”


At the La Center City Council’s Dec. 28, 2016 meeting, several councilors seemed reticent to change the IGA and mess with the “Welcome to La Center” monument designs.


“The original presentations … all referenced two ‘Welcome to city of La Center’ signs,” said Councilor Liz Cerveny at the Dec. 28 city council meeting. “That was what we agreed upon. And the landscaping would make that exit stand out and bring people to La Center … whether those people came to gamble (at the ilani casino) or came to our city, the sole purpose of making that exit stand out was to make people know where La Center was.”


Cerveny, along with councilors Joe Valenzuela, Randy Williams and Heather Birdwell-Currey, said she wasn’t inclined to change the monument design at this late date.


“They’re going to have to do some serious repositioning … to make me change my mind,” Cerveny said. “This was how they’ve presented it from the beginning. … For them to come back now and say, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got a mistake,’ it’s kind of difficult to have any sense of comfort or confidence as a community representative in that.”


Thornton told the council there will still be plenty of directional signage directing visitors toward the city of La Center, so even if the council and tribe decided to change the signage on the western roundabout monument, drivers coming off the southbound I-5 exit would still have a clear idea of how to get into La Center and how to drive toward the casino and Cowlitz Indian Reservation.


The mayor also said these discussions may be a moot point, since the Federal Highway Administration and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) may not even allow the monuments inside the under-construction roundabouts.


“When the plans were approved by WSDOT, they weren’t aware that these types of signs were even going to be in the roundabouts,” Thornton says. “They’re meeting this week to see if they’ll allow it. Typically, these are not allowed, but that doesn’t mean they won’t allow them (the monuments) in the roundabouts.”

Thornton added that he expects to hear more on the issue by the end of this week. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe is continuing with construction of the roundabouts, the I-5 exits and its $510 million casino, which is expected to open in mid-April.

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