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Babbitt Approves Casino Airway Heights Plan Up To Locke

Thu., Sept. 4, 1997

FOR THE RECORD (September 5, 1997): Incorrect attribution: In a Thursday article about a proposed casino in Airway Heights, a quote was attributed to the wrong person. This statement actually was made by mayoral candidate Vern Patten: “(Casinos) are turning out to be lucrative only for their financiers and, in the meantime, they suck a lot of money out of the local economy.”

A controversial proposal by the Kalispel Tribe to build a casino near Airway Heights has won approval from the federal government and is waiting for a nod from Gov. Gary Locke.

It will be several weeks at least before the governor makes a decision on the plan, said Helen Chung, a spokeswoman in Locke’s office.

The tribe wants to build a $17 million casino with 30 gaming tables, a 600-seat bingo hall and a restaurant on 40 acres. Money from the casino would fund a cultural center and social programs for the 238-member tribe.

Under federal law, the proposal had to be reviewed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt because it would use land not on the Kalispel reservation near Usk, Wash.

Babbitt concluded the casino is in the best interest of the tribe and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community, said Ralph Gonzales, spokesman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Neither Dave Bonga, Kalispel development manager, nor Glen Nenema, tribal chairman, returned calls on Tuesday and Wednesday about the latest development.

Despite Babbitt’s finding, critics are continuing their efforts to stop the casino.

Airway Heights mayoral candidate Vern Patten, a casino foe, wants the governor to survey residents about their views of the proposal.

In August 1996, the City Council approved the casino plan on a 3-to-2 vote. Mayor Don Harmon cast the deciding vote when Councilman Claude Hicks abstained. Harmon’s action is one of the main reasons Patten is running for office, he said.

“(Casinos) are turning out to be lucrative only for their financiers and, in the meantime, they suck a lot of money out of the local economy,” Harmon said.

Patten also is worried the casino could use up new sewer capacity the city is installing.

Fears of the casino overloading Airway Heights’ sewers are unwarranted, said Mike Patterson, city manager.

The city of Spokane has pledged to sell the casino sewer capacity if it’s built, Patterson said.

In fact, Airway Heights could make money from the deal by charging the casino to use a massive sewer line it has taken over from the Airway Heights Correctional Center, Patterson said.

Aside from dealing with the local concerns, Locke has a statewide policy issue facing him in the Kalispel proposal.

If he approves the plan, it could open the door for other tribes building casinos off their reservations - a major shift from the status quo, said Carrie Tellefson, spokeswoman for the state Gambling Commission.

Currently, tribes must build casinos on their reservations or on trust land.

The Kalispel Tribe, whose reservation near Usk is on virtually unusable land, purchased 40 acres near Airway Heights in 1993 and made it tribal trust lands, Tellefson said.

“I imagine other tribes will at least make an attempt” to follow the Kalispels (if they are successful), Tellefson said.

All gambling agreements the state has negotiated with tribes include a “favored nations clause.” The clause essentially says all tribes are entitled to equal treatment. If one tribe gets a special deal, then the rest are entitled to the same, Tellefson said.

To date, no other tribe has made a request similar to the Kalispels’, Tellefson said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map: Proposed casino


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