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Casino Plan Approved Airway Heights Mayor Breaks Tie In Tribe’s Favor

The odds of a glittery casino being built on the West Plains just improved.

A $17 million casino proposed by the Kalispel Tribe narrowly won approval Tuesday night from the Airway Heights City Council.

With the council deadlocked, Mayor Don Harmon broke the tie, giving the controversial project its crucial local government backing.

The project still has two hurdles to overcome before gambling can begin on 40 acres of land purchased by the Kalispels three years ago.

The tribe needs Bureau of Indian Affairs approval, and then must negotiate a contract with the governor’s office.

Both those steps would have been nearly impossible without the support of the Airway Heights council, said tribal officials.

The tiny 238-member tribe, based in Usk, Wash., first proposed the idea about three months ago.

Without much money of its own, the tribe will build the casino with money loaned by its partner, Miami-based Carnival Hotels and Casinos.

The scope of the project has alarmed some area residents. Council members delayed voting on the proposal for more than a month, trying to assess its potential impact on the city.

At Tuesday’s special meeting, council members Gail Combs and Dale Perry voted for the casino; Dee Mock and Brian Grady voted against.

The deciding vote fell to Harmon, who doesn’t vote unless the council is deadlocked.

As the vote stalled at two votes for and against, the council’s fifth member, Claude Hicks abstained.

Some of the 75 people on hand shouted: “Raise your hand, Claude” and “Go ahead, Hicks, do it, vote no.”

He sat on his hands instead, and Harmon cast the deciding ballot.

Hicks explained why he didn’t vote later. “I’d have been wrong if I voted in favor. And I’d have been wrong if I voted against. Finally, I guess I really couldn’t make up my mind,” he said.

Tribal development manager Dave Bonga said the vote finally moves the casino into high gear.

“We’re very excited, and we’re sure we will work with other groups in the city to make this a great community presence,” Bonga said.

Initial plans call for a building with 30 gaming tables, a 600-seat bingo hall and a restaurant.

Along with the casino, the tribe will use the land for a cultural center and job training facility.

Opponents contend it will increase crime, turn Airway Heights into a sin pit and drain city services.

Those in favor say it will give Airway Heights needed money to improve sewer and water lines, pave streets and add tourist dollars to local businesses.

“This will definitely put Airway Heights on the map,” said Councilman Perry as he cast a yes vote for the casino.

“Yeah, you bet it will,” shot back Airway Heights resident Elsie Patten from the audience.

Patten later said she and others will campaign against the casino when the tribe approaches the governor’s office for possible final approval.

“I’d say we’ve got a good chance, because there are so many against (the casino), the governor’s office will not be able to say that Airway Heights really supports it,” said Patten after the meeting.

Harmon said the close vote didn’t surprise him. “I had no idea how it would turn out, because none of the council ever called me to talk about it.”

Before the vote, City Attorney Tom Kingen summarized the proposed arrangement that the tribe had presented to Airway Heights.

Calling it the best deal of its kind that he’s seen, Kingen said the tribe will pay the city $300,000 up-front as a project fee. It will also pay for sewer and utilities expansion needed to accommodate the project.

Every year for the first seven years, Airway Heights will get a 2 percent cut of money earned on gambling at the casino.

If problems occur, the city’s been assured it can sue the tribe either in tribal court or in federal court, Kingen told the council.

Standing in the back of the hall after the vote, former Airway Heights Mayor Joe Martella groused that the decision will hurt small businesses.

“I’m not against this thing, if it’s down on an even playing field.

“But the tribe doesn’t have to pay taxes. They should have to pay the same costs and state taxes as all other city businesses do,” said Martella, who owns a liquor store on U.S. Highway 2.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo