March 27, 2012 in Opinion, Sports

Kalispel Tribe speaks out against casino idea at hearing

The Spokesman-Review
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This story has been updated to reflect additional comments at the March 26 meeting.

During a public hearing Monday evening on a proposed Spokane Tribe casino, members of the Kalispel Tribe said the new gaming facility would devastate the economic and social gains they’ve made in the past decade.

“We want the Spokane (Tribe) to have the same prosperity that we have had,” said Kalispel tribal Chairman Glen Nenema, “but without causing my tribe so much direct harm.”

The Spokane Tribe has been pushing the idea of a 145-acre economic development project about two miles west of the Kalispels’ existing Northern Quest Resort and Casino, which opened in 2000. They say the casino would help the tribe offset high unemployment and boost the regional economy with construction jobs and new retail business.

Monday’s hearing in Airway Heights drew more than 400 people, with about 60 people voicing support or opposition.

This was the first time the Kalispels have publicly opposed the Spokane Tribe’s proposal to build a casino and later a hotel on nonreservation land that the city of Airway Heights plans to annex.

Nenema, the Kalispels’ tribal chairman, urged representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to revisit the economic and social impacts on his tribe if the new casino were to be built.

The BIA with the Spokane Tribe’s help produced the draft environmental impact statement that prompted Monday’s public hearing. The BIA and Interior Department must first approve or reject the Spokane Tribe’s proposal. April 16 is the final day for comments.

Curt Holmes, another Kalispel tribal member, said Spokane is not a destination market that could support two competing casinos on the West Plains.

“The Spokane Tribe’s casino would have a devastating effect on our casino and a catastrophic effect on our ability to provide services to our community,” Holmes said.

Throughout the nearly three-hour hearing, other speakers laid out reasons for or against the proposed casino. Several speakers noted that the Kalispels only received the rare approval of building a casino off their native reservation because the tribe’s native reservation near Usk has few economic resources.

Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashiell says he and other commissioners favor a Spokane Tribe project. The Spokanes’ reservation is based in his county.

“The Spokane Tribe is our economy,” Dashiell said. He called on the BIA to look favorably on the proposed casino, saying it would create new jobs and boost Stevens County’s economy.

Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing also endorsed the proposed project, saying the Spokane Tribe has been transparent and helpful since first proposing the idea several years ago. Rushing said the project would promote more growth on the West Plains.

John Roskelley, the former Spokane County commissioner now seeking a return to his old job, opposed the Kalispel casino years ago and also opposes the proposed Spokane Tribe’s casino. He pointed out the Spokanes have a larger reservation, two existing casinos and several other businesses. “They will also receive from Congress a settlement they rightly deserve” totaling more than $130 million as compensation for impacts on Lake Roosevelt, he said.

More than 10 speakers said the threat of a new casino to nearby Fairchild Air Force Base was serious and should not be ignored by the BIA.

“This project is directly under the flight path of Fairchild’s takeoffs and approaches,” Fred Zitterkopf said. Left there, the proposed casino would definitely “affect the Air Force’s ability to maintain its flight training mission.”

Several speakers also pointed to a West Plains joint land use plan, encouraged by the Air Force, that defines sensitive zones that should avoid high-density developments. The casino and the later addition of a 300-room resort hotel would violate that guideline, they said.

David Wordington, a former Air Force serviceman now retired and living in Airway Heights, said he supported the tribe.

“I don’t gamble, but I do go to the casino to try out the buffet,” he said.

Producing one of the few laughs of the evening, Wordington said, “I bet the buffet at Northern Quest would get even better with the competition. I think competition is always good,” he said.

If the Department of the Interior approves the proposed casino, the Spokane Tribe would still need to negotiate an agreement with the governor’s office before moving forward.

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