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Tribe moves on casino plan

Wed., March 11, 2009

Spokanes say they’d pay county, Airway Heights for lost taxes

The Spokane Tribe of Indians, sensing that it might get a better hearing from the Obama administration, appears to be getting closer to its long-stated goal of building a casino on land it owns just west of Airway Heights.

In its latest step, the tribe has asked Spokane County to agree not to fight its application for a gaming license from the U.S. Department of the Interior. The tribe has already won approval from the state.

On Tuesday, the tribe got a welcome response from at least two commissioners with its assurances that it would make payments to both Spokane County and the city of Airway Heights to replace tax revenues lost from the tribe’s tax-exempt status.

“This is a politically sensitive issue on many fronts,” Commissioner Mark Richard said. “I’m certain that if we took input from our constituency we are going to get folks who are opposed to this position and those that are in support of the tribe moving forward. I think neutral is the appropriate place to be.”

Jim Emacio, chief deputy civil prosecuting attorney, said the tribe has requested that its 145 acres be annexed into Airway Heights to gain access to the water and sewer services necessary for development.

“I think even the tribe would indicate that it may be very unlikely that this (gaming proposal) will be approved” by federal officials, Emacio said. “Very rarely do they approve off-site gaming activities such as this. But with the new administration, I think they are more than encouraged that might improve.”

Tribal officials announced in January 2006 that it planned to build a $130 million commercial complex on the land it purchased in the late 1990s that also could include a hotel and casino. They estimated at the time that the development could provide 2,100 jobs.

Richard said he agreed with Commissioner Bonnie Mager that gaming proceeds have been used to help impoverished tribal members gain access to better schools and health care.

“The other thing that moves me on this particular issue is the fact that this is the Spokane Tribe. Their lineage came from these areas,” Richard said. “I’m not going to get in the middle of the Kalispels and the Spokanes, but there certainly is a bit of disappointment on behalf of the Spokanes that they would be prevented from the same activities on the ground their ancestors came from.”

The Kalispel Tribe, which has a reservation in Pend Oreille County, bought 40 acres in 1994 and opened Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights in 2000 after obtaining approval from city, state and federal officials. Profits from that casino allowed the tribe to buy another 253 acres, which is the site of its current $275 million expansion.

County and city officials had a long-standing battle with the Kalispels over tax-exempt status on the land the tribe purchased in Airway Heights. That ended in 2006 when tribal officials agreed to pay annually increasing fees to cover the costs of fire, police, roads and other services.

In that agreement, Airway Heights collects 80 percent of the fees. That’s essentially what the Spokane Tribe offered county and city leaders in a written proposal, Emacio said. The county would get 20 percent of $600,000 the first year the casino operates, and the fees go up each year from there.

“If we were to object, which we have done in the past, all that does is require us to go to a very large public mediation session and present our case. But municipalities are usually not successful in objections,” he said.

Emacio said the payments agreed to by the tribe would equal about the same amount the county would receive if it could assess property taxes on the tribal land. The agreement is expected to come back in a couple of weeks for final approval.

Tribal public relations director Jamie Sijohn said tribal council members were traveling and could not be reached for comment.

Mager said she only wants what is fair. “And I think what we got was a very fair deal.”

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