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Kalispel Tribal Leaders Forced To Defend Casino Attack On Plan For Airway Heights Project ‘Without Merit’

SUNDAY, NOV. 24, 1996

Three months after Airway Heights officials approved a Kalispel Tribal casino inside their city, supporters of the proposal are crossing their fingers while critics continue trying to cut it off at the pass.

After a public hearing two weeks ago in Spokane where detractors again attacked the casino, tribal leaders have been busy defending its likely impact on the community.

Taking most of the Kalispel’s energy last week was the need to send a detailed response to an attack by a group that knows Indian gambling well - the Spokane Indian Tribe.

The Spokane tribe - which has been neutral on the Airway Heights project up to now - recently sent an 18-page objection to the casino. If built on 40 acres of land inside Airway Heights, the $17 million casino would be the largest gambling operation in Spokane County.

The Spokanes recently sent their objection to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which must decide if the casino helps the tribe or could harm the community.

The Spokane tribe’s objections are “regrettable, particularly because the Spokanes are a huge tribe, compared to the Kalispels,” said Kalispel attorney Nettie Alvarez.

The Spokanes run two major slotmachine and bingo operations in the Spokane area.

“The main objection (by the Spokane tribe) is their fear of business competition,” said Kalispel Tribal Chairman Glen Nenema.

The Kalispels are based on a 4,600-acre reservation near Usk, Wash. They say the Airway Heights casino - the tribe’s first business venture outside their traditional reservation - will create jobs and economic opportunities for its 250 members. Most of them live in Spokane County.

The casino would also create other non-tribal jobs, attract other service businesses to the West Plains and generate more tourism.

Members of the Spokane tribe did not offer further comments on their objections sent to the BIA. Neither Nenema nor the bureau would provide a copy of the Kalispel response to the Spokanes’ objections.

The Kalispels’ formal reply, added Alvarez, is that “the Spokanes’ concerns and objections are without merit.”

Alvarez said it’s uncertain when the Bureau of Indian Affairs will make its decision. “We had hoped to have an answer by the first of the year,” Nenema said.

If the agency give its approval, the tribe must also negotiate a gambling compact with Washington’s state gambling commission.

Both agencies will be reviewing the usual criticisms made against the casino - that it would attract criminal activity, strain city resources and weaken community values.

Some residents have also argued that the tribe would be welcome if they agreed to pay property taxes.

Tribal leaders bought the Airway Heights land in 1993, then arranged through federal agencies to have the 40 acres designated as tribal trust. Later this year, they also acquired reservation status for the land.

“Reservation status allows the tribe to provide health services to its members in the Spokane area,” Alvarez said.

Reservation status also provides exemption from local property taxes. And that riles some critics, such as Airway Heights resident Florence Booher.

“Property taxes are what pay for police and fire services and improvements,” she said. “And if they paid them like everyone else, I’d support it,” she said.

Alvarez said some critics are raising alarm over the possibility the tribe could use future casino earnings to buy Airway Heights property and convert it to reservation land. That might - conceivably - have an effect on Airway Heights residential and business tax rates.

“That’s something the tribe has said it does not plan to do. That’s total speculation driven by fear,” she added.

Chairman Nenema added that the prospect of the Kalispels buying more land in Airway Heights is doubtful.

If the tribe has money for investments, it’s more likely to spend it creating tribal business opportunities in the Usk area, Nenema said.

He pointed out, for instance, that the tribe has changed its mind on buying an additional 140 acres in Airway Heights. That land was to be used for a culture center and housing complex.

The shift followed the realization that sewer and water capacity in Airway Heights is inadequate for a project of that size.

Even if the tribe did buy future land and seek to make it part of its reservation, Airway Heights would be protected through the impact fees or payments that local governments get in such cases, said City Administrator Mike Patterson.

The city, for instance, would get an annual fee from the tribe of no less than $347,000 from casino earnings. “That’s far in excess of what the land would generate for Airway Heights through property taxes paid (to the county),” Patterson said.

If the state finally gives its blessing, the casino is expected to be large enough to have 50 gaming tables and 600 bingo seats.

Contrary to descriptions of the casino as “glitzy or glittery,” she insisted its design will be tasteful and appropriate. The firm preparing the design is the same one working on a national Indian center that will be constructed in the next few years, she said. , DataTimes

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