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Casino expansion gets rolling

Ruben Camas, of Garco Construction, maneuvers a beam for the new parking garage at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights on Wednesday.
 (Photos by RAJAH BOSE / The Spokesman-Review)
Ruben Camas, of Garco Construction, maneuvers a beam for the new parking garage at Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights on Wednesday. (Photos by RAJAH BOSE / The Spokesman-Review)

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians expects to ring in the New Year with a present for gamblers, show patrons and buffet lovers: the first phase of an expansion at its Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights.

West of the casino a towering crane hefts metal beams for a six-story, 1,500-space parking garage. To the south, loaders and excavators prepare the ground for a 48,000-square-foot casino addition to house hundreds of additional machines and a sports bar and grill. The enlarged casino will be ready a year earlier than previously announced.

Plans also call for a glass-front 250-room hotel tower and spa to be opened by Dec. 31, 2009. It will round out the tribe’s nearly $200 million initial investment, aimed at transforming the casino into a regional resort destination.

Though paced differently than planned, the expansion dwarfs most other private commercial construction projects in the region. Area officials hail it as an engine for economic development.

The tribe first proposed a $275 million project, encompassing a 350-room hotel and casino set around a glass atrium with indoor waterfalls and a winding river, a 2,300-seat special events venue, and dining and retail space. It would have opened by 2010.

That atrium, and hundreds more hotel rooms, will come later, said Kent Caputo, chief operating officer for the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority. But the new phased approach was more economically viable and allowed flexibility, he said.

“It’s always evolving,” Caputo said. “Had we stuck with the original plan, not only does it cost a lot, frankly, to build it right away and then you set a footprint that you have to stay within, but also it means you have to decide right away how big is the theater going to be, how big is the conference center going to be.”

The total project could cost more than $500 million, he said.

A cacophony of electronic sounds emanated from gaming machines as the casino bustled on a recent weekday afternoon. The roughly 400-member tribe, which has a reservation in Usk, Wash., opened the casino in 2000. It already was expanded once.

Airway Heights Mayor Matthew Pederson said city departments are working with the tribe, and “everything is going very well, and the concept and everything associated with it is actually quite impressive.” While the tribe doesn’t pay taxes, it does pay fees to the city, he said.

“It’s a very ambitious project that will sustain a lot of growth over the next couple of years and really be a true asset to the city of Airway Heights and the Spokane region,” Pederson said.

The casino employs about 1,100 full- and part-time workers, said Michael Wiprud, director of project planning for the economic authority. That work force will expand by more than 400 for the expanded casino and first hotel tower, he said.

The tribe initially projected the expansion could create 500 construction jobs. The casino buys $1.7 million in goods and services each month, much of it from local companies, according to figures released by the tribe last summer.

For the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, the resort and conference center plans represent a chance to accommodate more events and tourists, said Harry Sladich, CEO and president. “The reason we’re excited about that product is that it’s different,” Sladich said. “It’s another arrow in our quiver.”

The casino also sits adjacent to Spokane Raceway Park, which was recently purchased by the county and other bidders at a public auction. Sladich said the track could play into the sheriff’s desire to make Spokane a law enforcement training hub, benefiting the resort.

“That’s the missing link out in West Plains,” Sladich said. “You have the limited service properties, but you don’t have a full-service hotel. It’s kind of like the bookend on the other end of the county.”

A woman paid about $1.3 million for two parcels immediately north of the casino. While buying the land would have provided space for construction activity, the tribe already owned 250 acres of trust land near the 40 acres containing the casino, Caputo said.

“We think there are other people that have big plans with what they want to do around racing or other development around that site, and we’re excited about it,” he said.

The 10-story hotel tower, which the tribe aims to make four-star quality, will sit west of the casino. It’s expected to include a 10,000-square-foot spa, 5,000-square-foot meeting area and 24-hour restaurant. Work should begin by August, Caputo said.

A second tower on the other side of the 50,000-square-foot atrium could have 400 to 450 rooms. It’s unclear when construction would begin.

The casino expansion can accommodate as many as 600 slot machines, Caputo said. The tribe also plans a separate sports bar and grill with a high-definition projection TV system on one wall and a broadcasting studio on the other.

While nothing has been signed, Spokane TV station KHQ – which, like The Spokesman-Review, is owned by Cowles Co. – would be interested in broadcasting from there, said Patricia McRae, vice president and general manager. The station is considering options for its next digital channel, which would launch in 2009 or 2010, she said.

The parking garage should be finished by October, Caputo said.

The tribe wanted to hold off on the events center partly because of the recently reopened Fox Theater, where the tribe or Northern Quest plans to hold two yearly events, he said.

“It just added up to a much better set of options, and also lets us keep our options open a little longer,” Caputo said. “We didn’t have to make that decision today.”

Reach Parker Howell at (509) 459-5491 or

If you go

What: Kent Caputo, the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority’s chief operating officer, will speak about the tribe’s economic development growth at a Gonzaga University business forum.

When: June 26, 7:30 a.m.

Where: Jepson Center Wolff Auditorium

Cost: $15 (includes breakfast)

Reservations: (509) 313-5991


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