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West Plains coalition opposes Spokane Tribe’s casino plans

Tue., March 15, 2011

A group of West Plains business owners say they oppose plans by the Spokane Tribe to build a casino and resort in Airway Heights.

Irv Zakheim, owner of manufacturing company Zak Designs, has formed a coalition of more than 20 people he says oppose a second casino in Airway Heights. Zakheim said the group plans to voice its concerns to federal and state legislators and other elected officials.

Among others in that coalition are the owners of vehicle auction firm DAA Northwest and Pearson Packaging, both on the West Plains, Zakheim said.

Leaders of the Spokane Tribe have submitted a request to the U.S. Department of Interior to build a casino and resort on 145 acres of trust land the tribe acquired near Airway Heights in 1998. It also needs the approval of Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The Spokane Tribe casino would be the first step in an economic development project tribal leaders say could eventually create 1,200 jobs.

Also opposing the Spokanes’ plan is the Kalispel Tribe, which runs the nearby Northern Quest Resort and Casino, opened in 2000. The Kalispel Tribe built its casino and resort on land it bought and which the federal government later designated tribal reservation land. Zakheim said that was one of just five rare instances in which the government approved redesignating a tribe’s reservation land and permitted a casino on it.

He contends the Spokane Tribe has options on its 150,000-acre reservation rather than in Airway Heights.

The 145 acres where the Spokane Tribe wants to open a new resort and casino are considered trust land and would require federal approval before a casino could open there. U.S. Interior Department officials have not said when they’ll make a ruling on the Spokane Tribe application.

Zakheim said it’s important that politicians and officials who review that tribal request know there are opponents. “If we don’t voice our opinion on this, then the politicians will think no one’s opposed and they’ll approve it,” he said.

Zakheim said he opposed the Northern Quest proposal when it surfaced in the 1990s, but not publicly. This time he’s more concerned about the total impact on the community, he said.

“One casino is enough,” he said. “We do not believe that there is a large enough market here to support two casinos so close to each other,” Zakheim said.

Zakheim’s business has been on the West Plains for 18 years. He said he’s among those who see the gaming industry as one with limited upsides. “The gaming industry does not add to the economy. Over time, it can actually decrease a community’s net income,” he contends.

Jamie Sijohn, communications director for the Spokane Tribe, said the tribe has invited Zakheim to meet and discuss his concerns. That invitation hasn’t been accepted, Sijohn said.

Greg Abrahamson, the Spokane Tribe’s chairman, said the Kalispels’ casino has had a major economic impact on Spokane Tribe operations. Since Northern Quest opened, revenue from the Spokane Tribe’s two casinos, in Chewelah and Two Rivers, has been drastically reduced, he said.

“It has had a detrimental impact on our ability to provide social services” to tribal youth and elders, he added.

And replying to Zakheim’s suggestion that the tribe work harder on marketing its two casinos outside Spokane County, Abrahamson said location is vital and crucial in gaining customers. The prospects of attracting Spokane visitors to either Two Rivers or Chewelah are vastly more complicated if gamers can just drive to Airway Heights, Abrahamson said.



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