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Sat., April 2, 2011

Guest opinion: Spokane Tribe’s project a step forward

From time immemorial, the Spokane Tribe of Indians lived and raised families across the many miles of the Spokane River Basin, including the current city lands of Spokane and Airway Heights. This region makes up our ancestral homeland.

The Spokane Tribe continues to share a sense of responsibility for the social and economic well-being of this region. While we respect and engage in efforts to conserve our homeland, we want to do what we can in partnership with the community to move forward economically. To this end, the tribe initiated the Spokane Tribe Economic Project – STEP.

STEP is located on 145 acres of tribal land adjacent to the city of Airway Heights. This land is held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the Spokane Tribe.

STEP envisions a phased $400 million development. All of the facilities will be designed by an industry-leading architectural firm on a well-planned site, paying particular attention to sensitive environmental features. Project details and an artist rendering may be viewed at

The Spokane Tribe is committed to continue to work closely and cooperatively with local governments to ensure that STEP is compatible with regional planning. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is undertaking an environmental impact statement to study environmental concerns including a study to determine traffic impacts. The tribe executed agreements with the city of Airway Heights and Spokane County for public services.

The Spokane Tribe has applied for and received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration that the project will not be a hazard to air navigation. Additionally, the city officials in Airway Heights have publicly stated that they are “satisfied that no encroachment issues exist” for STEP.

As the BIA prepares to release the draft EIS this spring, the tribe is assembling information required for its application for STEP to the Department of the Interior. Once the secretary of interior approves the application, the governor will be asked to concur with that decision. The Spokane Tribe welcomes this rigorous process and the accompanying amount of scrutiny that STEP will receive to ensure that objective review of the project occurs.

As the Spokane Tribe reaches out to the community, two questions are commonly raised about STEP.

The first question is, “Can the region support another casino project?”

The answer to that is unquestionably yes. The Spokane Tribe has undertaken market analysis and feasibility studies and has determined that a well-planned, properly phased development will be successful for the tribe and the region.

The second question raised is, “Will STEP set a precedent for other tribes to open casinos in the West Plains or statewide?”

The answer to this question is no. STEP will be approved under a very narrow process called a two-part determination. The process is fact-specific and will apply to few tribes. The process through the Department of the Interior is rigorous and the governor also has a role in these two-part determinations. STEP is a unique project and a two-part determination is appropriate specifically in this instance for a few reasons, including (1) the property’s existing trust status, (2) the property’s location in the very heart of the Spokane Tribe’s ancestral lands, (3) the state’s contractual obligation to consider approval of the project by the secretary of interior in good faith and (4) the devastating impact another tribe’s off-reservation casino has had on the Spokane Tribe’s on-reservation operations. If anything, the process will be more difficult in the future, and it is less likely that off-reservation developments will occur in the West Plains, Washington state or anywhere else.

The benefits of STEP are huge for this area’s economic future. In these dire financial times, STEP is poised to create an estimated 3,800 jobs. Those 3,800 jobs include construction jobs that will keep 1,200 construction workers busy for years. The creation of these jobs will address the tribal crisis of 52 percent unemployment and create self-sufficiency and solvency for the tribe while employing people from the entire region. STEP will also contribute to a higher quality of life for the West Plains with its current high unemployment rate of 34.5 percent, while generating a much-needed boost to local tourism.

The Spokane Tribe is thankful for the amazing cross section of support that STEP has already received. Elected officials, business owners, civic leaders, union leaders and individuals already expressed incredible support for STEP. This important project will transform the West Plains and provide benefits to the region for generations.

Gregory J. Abrahamson is chairman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council.

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