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Our View: Spokane Tribe’s plans merit thorough review

The Spokane Indian Tribe, the author of so much of the region’s history, has a glittering vision for the future. It’s a vision of bright lights, excited crowds, whirring slot machines and lots and lots of money.

In Airway Heights, at the heart of what the federal government would term the Spokanes’ “exclusive aboriginal territory,” the tribe wants to build what would be the Inland Northwest’s biggest casino with a hotel, concert hall and dramatically landscaped grounds.

One casino already exists in Airway Heights, of course. The Northern Quest Casino is owned and operated by the Kalispel Tribe, whose traditional lands are to the north in the area surrounding its reservation near Usk. Northern Quest has been resoundingly successful, generating revenue to fund health and education for tribal members, contribute to civic causes in the Spokane area and support local government.

The Spokanes hope for the same. They were attempting to do generally that with the two casinos they already operate on their reservation – until Northern Quest was built on the West Plains, closer to the urban gamblers who previously traveled to the Spokanes’ more remote facilities.

We honor the aspirations of both tribes, but we have misgivings about this kind of expansion. We wonder just how much big-league gambling is necessary. How many outlets are required to feed the futile dreams of desperate people risking their families’ financial stability in the hope of instant riches?

Fortunately, that issue is one of several that must be addressed before the plans could move ahead. Under federal law, the secretary of the Interior Department has to be satisfied that the casino project would be in the best interest of the tribe and its members, and that it wouldn’t be detrimental to the community. After that, the governor of Washington would have to approve, but only after obtaining input from the public, local governments and other nearby tribes, such as the Kalispels.

Since Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, Native gaming has become a multibillion-dollar national industry, and certain tribes have become phenomenally successful, occasionally using their funds to partner with other tribes setting up casinos across the country.

To date, approval of off-reservation casinos such as Northern Quest has been rare. Northern Quest is one of only four. A year ago, more than 40 other tribes had requests pending with the Interior Department, but then-Secretary Dirk Kempthorne threw out almost half of them before the Bush administration left office. What the Obama administration’s attitude will be is uncertain, but the potential for a proliferation of off-reservation casinos has to be treated as a possibility.

It’s premature to render a thumbs-down just yet, but if the application gets past the Interior Department and returns for local and state consideration, offers of revenue sharing are certain to be dangled before local officials. That can’t be allowed to prevent a meticulous examination of community impact. Social decay is not a future anyone wants.

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