Only Oklahoma and California have more Indian casinos than Washington’s 28. If the Cowlitz and Spokane tribes get their way, it will be 30, and if the trend they represent continues, it could be many more.
In the 23 years since Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribal casinos have become a $20 billion industry, with nearly 350 of them in 29 states.
That’s not to say the proliferation of gambling establishments is without merit. They provide tribes with revenue for health care, employment, education and other needs of their members.
But the casinos, once scattered on rural reservation locations, are spreading to off-reservation lands acquired by tribes to be closer to urban populations.
Take the Cowlitz project, for example. The tribe envisions a half-billion-dollar complex in Clark County, minutes from metropolitan Portland and Vancouver. They were not even a federally recognized tribe in 1988 when IGRA became law, and they had no reservation until last month.
The city of Vancouver and Clark County, which filed suit to block the venture, are joined by foes that include the Grand Ronde Tribe, which operates Oregon’s largest casino.
That competitive tension also exists in Spokane County, where the Spokane Tribe plans its own gambling complex on off-reservation land it owns in Airway Heights, site of the Kalispel Tribe’s profitable Northern Quest Casino. Local governments here have not raised the kind of objections the Cowlitz face in Clark County, but that doesn’t mean they lack cause.
To operate a casino on off-reservation lands, a tribe must show it will benefit tribal members and won’t be detrimental to the surrounding community. The Spokanes’ proposed site, however, is on the edge of a military influence area that has been marked off relative to Fairchild Air Force Base’s flight activities.
Controlling development in that area is integral to the community’s efforts to protect Fairchild, a substantial economic asset, from periodic base-closure rounds. That alone raises concern about the plans for another casino in Airway Heights.
Not to mention the question of just how much gambling we need in this community.
The Kalispels were granted a rare off-reservation exception because their 4,654-acre reservation was unsuitable for development, lacking even potable water. The Spokanes, with a reservation more than 30 times that size, including significant recreational and agricultural land, already operate two casinos.
Is a third worth the possibility of putting Fairchild Air Force Base at risk? That’s a gamble the community shouldn’t take.