November 17, 2011 in City

Spokane Tribe lambastes critics of proposed casino

Opposition blamed on Kalispels, groups
By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokane Tribe shot back Wednesday at critics of the casino it wants to build at Airway Heights.

Mike Spencer, vice chairman of the tribal council, said he thinks most of the opposition is from people with economic ties to the Kalispel Tribe’s nearby Northern Quest Resort and Casino.

If anyone has a right to a Spokane-area casino, it’s the Spokane Tribe, Spencer said in a press conference at the tribe’s Spoko Fuel truck stop.

The truck stop is on some 300 acres “right in the middle of our ancestral territory” where the tribe plans to add a casino, a big box store, six smaller stores and several restaurants, Spencer said.

He said the primary opponent is the Kalispel Tribe, whose reservation is in Pend Oreille County.

“This is not their ancestral territory,” Spencer said.

He said the Spokane Tribe, whose reservation is in Stevens County, didn’t object to the Kalispels’ casino.

However, he said, “we made it perfectly clear to them and to the federal government” that the Spokanes would seek their own Airway Heights casino if the Kalispel casino significantly affected tribal revenue.

The Spokane Tribe’s casino revenue plummeted within two years of the Northern Quest Casino’s opening in December 2000, Spencer said, from $30 million to $35 million a year to less than $5 million.

He said Spokane tribal leaders had to slash spending on youths, elders and health care, as well as a program of buying back reservation land from nontribal owners.

Greater Spokane Incorporated also drew fire at the press conference, at which a foot-tall stack of support letters was displayed.

“It is absolutely disingenuous of Greater Spokane to oppose this project at this time when these desperately needed jobs are available,” said Deven Johnson, president of the Eastern Washington-Northern Idaho Building and Construction Trades Council.

“We’re trying to create more than 3,000 jobs here, yet we seem to be continually held back,” Spencer said.

Greater Spokane and other organizations oppose the casino because of its proximity to Fairchild Air Force Base. They fear encroachment could weaken Fairchild’s position in another round of military base closures expected in 2014.

Spencer said a Nov. 3 ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration shows the casino wouldn’t interfere with navigation at Fairchild or nearby Spokane International Airport.

He said the casino site was chosen based on price, but he doesn’t think a site farther from the air base would have prevented criticism.

“I firmly believe that the Kalispels would have opposed us building anywhere in a 20- to 25-mile radius of their casino,” Spencer said.

A Kalispel tribal spokeswoman wasn’t prepared to comment Wednesday.

The Kalispel Tribe and Fairchild officials so far have taken no formal position on the Spokane Tribe’s request for federal approval to build an off-reservation casino. Both have said they want to review an environmental impact study before commenting.

Spencer said tribal Chairman Greg Abrahamson was in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to urge Bureau of Indian Affairs officials to release an environmental study for 45 days of public review.

Tribal officials hope the study will be published in the Federal Register within two or three weeks, in keeping with a timetable laid out by the BIA’s Portland office, Spencer said.

The tribe may be required to mitigate concerns, and there is no deadline for a decision. If federal approval is granted, “then we’re at the mercy of the governor,” Spencer said. He said he hopes that will happen before Gov. Chris Gregoire leaves office.

Construction couldn’t realistically start in less than 10 months, Spencer said.

The tribe has an agreement with Warner Gaming in Las Vegas to arrange $160 million worth of financing for the project’s first phase, which Spencer said includes construction of the casino, a gift shop and at least five restaurants.

The second phase probably will focus on retail development, including a big box store and about a half-dozen smaller stores.

He said the tribe’s agreement with Warner Gaming includes management services in exchange for a share of profits, but federal law would require the tribe to have full control of the casino within five years.

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