Two Spokane County commissioners are asking the Bureau of Indian Affairs to overturn a 2010 contract that prevents the county from taking sides on the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino in Airway Heights.
County Commissioners Al French and Todd Mielke voted on Oct. 24 to send the request to the BIA’s new top official, Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn.
The resolution asks the BIA to decide if a 2010 contract signed by Spokane County with the tribe and the city of Airway Heights is invalid.
French wasn’t on the commission when that deal was signed. Mielke was the one commissioner who voted against the deal, which provides a cut of future casino revenue to the county if the Spokane Tribe ever builds it. In return, the county agreed to remain neutral on the project.
If approved, the Spokane Tribe’s casino would be built in Airway Heights not far from the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Resort and Casino.
Many regional and state officials and area business groups have filed comments for or against the tribe’s application.
French said that Washburn, who was recently appointed to the top BIA job, has made one casino ruling reflecting the view that casino decisions must rely on “adequate” community input.
“The record for this application is not complete,” French said. “There are no comments from the county, the largest local jurisdiction affected by the (tribe’s) proposal.”
The tribe’s proposal awaits a yes or no vote from the BIA. The next step is the release of the final draft environmental impact statement, which addresses the proposal’s impact on land and nearby communities.
If approved, the tribe’s application would also need a green light from Washington’s governor.
The 2010 deal calling for the county’s neutrality was approved by former Commissioner Bonnie Mager and Commissioner Mark Richard.
French has been critical of Mager for leading that effort and then taking a position working on behalf of the casino proposal after she left office.
Richard has said his 2010 support for the deal with the tribe was based on recognizing the Spokanes’ need for economic development.
Richard did not attend the recent session when Mielke and French approved sending the BIA letter. “If I had been there I would have voted against it,” Richard said.
A BIA spokeswoman said the agency is “reviewing the application and all materials submitted by interested parties.”
The Spokane Tribe has said the casino and convention center would generate more than 2,000 jobs and boost local and tribal economies. It’s needed to help support the tribe’s social programs, tribal leaders have said.
Community opponents have said the area has a casino already. Some contend the proposed casino is directly below Fairchild Air Force Base training flights, potentially affecting the base’s ability to train air crews.
Officials from the city of Airway Heights and Stevens County have backed the Spokanes’ proposal, saying it’s a key part of the tribe’s economic future.
The Kalispel Tribe, which gained BIA approval in 1998 to operate its casino, opposes the Spokane Tribe proposal, saying it would disrupt its operation and is not needed since the Spokanes already have two casinos.
Two months ago, French appealed to the Airway Heights City Council to rescind the 2010 contract. The council declined.
French said the need for an answer is critical because the BIA may make a decision for or against the proposal within several months.
If the BIA approves the casino, Spokane County would have the option of addressing comments to the governor’s office. Mielke and French have made no public comments about the casino project. Under BIA requirements, any statements the county wishes to make must be in written form.