March 27, 2011 in Business

Caldwell: Roof-raising, smart bets could be boon to West Plains

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

There’s nothing plain, or even new, about the economic potential of the West Plains.

Fairchild Air Force Base and Spokane International Airport have been mainstays for decades, their value constantly enhanced by upgrades like the runway improvements under way at both facilities. With companies like Triumph Composites, Associated Painters, Jet Tech and Goodrich clustered around the airport, aerospace in Washington is not just about the Renton-Seattle-Everett axis anymore.

Other assets include the Northern Quest Resort and Casino, Airway Heights Correctional Center and Inland Power & Light Co.

If county, state and federal officials decide to be more accommodating, the list could be longer, and local unemployment lines shorter.

The simplest call is up to the Spokane County commissioners, who will soon have before them a proposal to raise the permissible building height to 50 feet from 40 feet in the light-industrial zone that surrounds the airport. The extra height could seal the deal for distribution centers that could make use of the ready access to Interstate 90, trucking industry sales and services clustered around the Medical Lake interchange and the 2,000 feet of runway poured at the airport the last two years.

The commissioners bollixed a rezone on the airport’s north side several years ago, so a little caution on their part is understandable, but now is the time to raise the roof.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Olympia on Thursday killed a bill that would have classified electricity from the Waste-to-Energy plant “alternative energy,” a designation lost when voters approved Initiative 937 in 2006. The change is needed for two reasons: Green energy has twice the value on the wholesale market, and forward-thinking businesses want as much green content in their products as possible. City officials say the Waste-to-Energy plant could be a business magnet if the law can be modified.

Failing to get the changes made this legislative session will probably cost the city several million dollars and discourage businesses that might exploit the plant’s steam to grow algae as a new energy source, for example.

The most troubled and troublesome of the development options for the West Plains is the Spokane Tribe’s push for a casino. The tribe’s gaming operations at Chewelah and Two Rivers have suffered as Northern Quest has flourished. The Spokanes argue they are entitled to the same breaks given the Kalispels when that tribe was permitted to open Northern Quest far from their Pend Oreille County reservation. They need the consent of U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Interior must determine whether a casino would improve the economic circumstances of tribal members and not harm the surrounding community. That was a much easier call a decade ago for the land-poor Kalispels and a community with no experience with a major gaming facility.

The Spokanes have other resources, but clearly are suffering in this stubborn economic downturn. Airway Heights has thrived the past decade, and not just because of Northern Quest. West Plains business leaders say one casino is enough, with a second unlikely to grow a gaming market already shared with the Coeur d’Alene Resort Casino at Worley, Idaho.

In the spirit of free enterprise, maybe the Spokanes should be allowed to go forward – if they can. They apparently have a solid partner in Warner Gaming, which last month was given the OK to take over the gambling operation at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. But financing may be hard to come by.

Like the Hard Rock Café, many casinos have been unable to meet their debt obligations. The gaming pie is only so big, and the slices keep getting smaller.

Unlike the initiatives associated with the airport and Waste-to-Energy plant, the Spokane casino may be a zero-sum game.

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