Casino Advocates Say Foes Racially Motivated Kalispel Plan For Airway Heights Sparks Heated Testimony
Much of the opposition to the Kalispel Tribe’s proposed Las Vegas-style casino in Airway Heights is racially motivated, a city councilman charged Thursday.
But in two hours of lively testimony before the state Gambling Commission, opponents accused proponents of ignoring a host of social ills associated with gambling.
Tribal Chairman Glen Nenema said the $17 million casino would provide social and economic programs the tribe hasn’t been able to accomplish since its “vast” territory was reduced to the current 10-square-mile reservation along the Pend Oreille River.
The Kalispels are committed to operating within federal and state laws, Nenema told the commission. Slot machines would join the blackjack tables only with state approval, he pledged.
“We intend to use this tool properly and with great sensitivity,” he said.
But Airway Heights City Councilman Dale Perry threw sensitivity out the window when he joined Mayor Don Harmon and a parade of business and union representatives who praised the casino’s potential for economic development.
Perry claimed “close to half” of the opposition to the project is rooted in anti-Indian prejudice.
He said one person told him he should have excused himself from the City Council vote to support the project because his wife is Indian.
According to Perry, other casino opponents made derogatory remarks about Indians. One said, “I think a casino would be good except I’m afraid the Indians are going to move in here.”
If the casino is approved, the tribe hopes to build nearby low-cost housing for its members.
Opponents objected to Perry’s allegation of racism.
“If it had been God’s casino, we’d have been against it,” said Airway Heights resident Elsie Patten, who worried the casino would use up the city’s limited sewer and water system capacity.
Another resident, Florence Booher, discounted the proponents’ claim that residents would benefit from 600 construction jobs and at least 500 permanent jobs.
“Indians hire Indians from one tribe to another to get the work done,” she said.
“After the casino, they want to purchase 153 more acres to build homes and bring their families here, and then we will have to let them attend our schools,” Booher said, adding that local schools already are overcrowded.
“Why would the state give the tribe permission to operate a business that is denied to others?” asked Spokane Valley resident Penny Lancaster.
Another Valley resident, Shellie Tabish, urged officials to consider the effect gambling has on families. She said she plunged from a $56,000-a-year income to a meager disability payment after she divorced her husband of 33 years because of his compulsive gambling - mainly on horse and dog races.
Turning to tribal chairman Nenema, Tabish pleaded for understanding: “Your own people have these problems, too, and you know it.”
Commission members agreed to schedule another meeting to hear from people in the crowd of 130 who didn’t get to speak Thursday afternoon.
Gov. Mike Lowry has directed the commission to give him a report by mid-December so he can answer questions posed by U.S. Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. Under federal law, Babbitt must determine that the proposed casino would “not be detrimental to the surrounding community.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo 2 Maps: 1. Site of proposed casino and Camas Institute 2. Location of Kalispel Indian Reservation