Airway Heights City Council members, struggling to decide if they approve of a proposed Las Vegas-style casino, predict they’ll finally vote on the proposal Tuesday.
The casino plan, first presented in early June by the Kalispel Tribe, has fueled harsh and divided opinions in this windswept town between Spokane and Fairchild Air Force Base.
Council members were told this week that gambling may be in the city’s future, even if they vote against the proposed casino.
Under federal law, the Kalispel Tribe has the right to use land it bought in 1993 for limited gambling - such as bingo, pull-tabs and small-stakes poker games.
Bingo and pull-tabs are considered class II gambling, and a facility offering them would only have to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
That’s far easier done than a full-fledged casino, such as the $17 million project proposed for Airway Heights.
That proposal - known as class III gambling has to be reviewed by state officials who will make sure they protect the interests of Airway Heights residents.
The possibility of gambling on a reduced scale was mentioned by a spokesman for Miami-based Carnival Hotels and Casinos, the tribe’s corporate partner in the project.
Airway Heights Mayor Don Harmon, a backer of the full-fledged casino, said the city would lose money and control over the project if the tribe opts for a bingo/pull-tab operation.
“If we approve the casino, it’s a win-win situation for the city,” Harmon said. “If we vote it down” and the tribe builds a limited gambling facility, “it’s a lose-lose situation.”
Bill Johnson, vice president for Indian gaming with Carnival, said he mentioned the bingo option at the end of a meeting last Monday as one possible use for the 40 acres the tribe bought in 1993.
Johnson insisted the tribe has never publicly said what it would do if the city refuses the full-fledged casino - which requires both federal and state support before being built.
“A bingo hall is one of the uses they might have. But it’s not something I’ve ever heard any of the members say they plan to do,” Johnson said.
What concerns Airway Heights officials is that the tribe may see creating a class II bingo hall as the next best way to start earning some money on the land they’ve acquired.
All along, the 238-member tribe has said it chose gambling as a business to generate jobs, provide education choices and help care for the social needs of its members.
Eventually, the complex could grow with the added purchase of another 140 acres, which the tribe is considering buying. That land would be used for a hotel, a housing development and an institute for tribal cultural studies.
The full casino would include 50 gaming tables, a 600-seat bingo hall and a restaurant. Under class III gambling options, the tribe could even offer blackjack, keno, horse and dog betting and satellite wagering.
Dave Bonga, development director for the Kalispels, said the tribe is still committed to building the full casino.
“We haven’t thought about (a class II) hall yet. It’s too soon to consider it,” Bonga said.
If the city approves the casino, the tribe and Carnival still face two obstacles. First they need to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs the project is in the best interests of the city and of the tribe itself.
Then the tribe would need to negotiate a gambling compact with the state. If Airway Heights council members approve the plan soon, the tribe couldn’t break ground until mid-1997 at the earliest, Bonga said.
In return, Airway Heights would get an up-front impact “fee” of $300,000 from Carnival, plus the annual promise - for seven years - of 2 percent of the gambling take, minus payouts.
City officials estimate the money it gets could help hold down Airway Heights utility bills and taxes for years.
If the city turns down the casino, Carnival will step out of the project, said Johnson. Then, if the tribe chooses to build a bingo/pull-tab gambling facility, the city gets nothing.
Critics have said the casino would be a magnet for criminals and drain local services.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MEETING Tuesday’s meeting will be held at Sunset Elementary School at 7 p.m. No public comment or presentations will be allowed.