April 12, 2013 in City

Fairchild’s casino silence baffling and frustrating

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

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Why all the whispering, Fairchild?

If the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino is a threat to the base – which is, in turn, a threat to the local economy – why not just say so, in clear, modern, American, nonbureaucratic English?

Short of that, why not just say why you won’t say?

“You are asking the right question,” said Greg Bever. “But I don’t know the answer.”

It is no small thing that Bever, of all people, doesn’t know the answer. Fairchild Air Force Base has few, if any, better friends than him. Bever is chairman of Forward Fairchild, the arm of Greater Spokane Incorporated that advocates on behalf of the base and tries to promote the best future for it. A more or less constant concern is the question: How does Fairchild stack up against other bases in the event that the government starts closing them down? What potential liabilities can be addressed now, to prevent demerits if the government begins a base-evaluation process?

Bever’s group, and others, are convinced that the proposed casino represents an encroachment problem and a potential safety concern. The base’s formal position on the casino is neutral, and a recent federal analysis concluded that the tribe had taken steps to address concerns about lighting and noise in its development. In that analysis, no one from the base or the military raised concerns about a possible crash into the resort tower.

Still, a whole lot of people believe and are willing to say, unequivocally, that base officials are very worried about the casino proposal. I have been told, repeatedly and by the same folks, that base officials simply cannot talk about it publicly. When I try to raise someone at Fairchild to talk about it – even to discuss why they won’t talk about it – no one bothers to respond.

It’s such an enormous, threatening concern that no one can say so directly.

Instead, we get a giant game of telephone. One suspects, given the people playing it, that the game ends with people whispering into the ear of Gov. Jay Inslee, who will make the final call.

It’s no wonder that some people are dubious. It’s no wonder that some people think the encroachment problem has as much to do with another casino, which has made a lot of efforts to ingratiate itself to the local business community, as it does the base. It’s no wonder that many suspect the “Fairchild is worried” argument is a cover for other issues people may have with the Spokane Tribe.

The tribe wants to build a casino and resort, with a 145-foot tower, near the base in an area where airmen conduct training flights, but not under the main flight path.

To Bever – and lots of other folks – this is a problem.

“I know I wouldn’t want to put the masses in an entertainment center under that flight path,” he said. “We just had a Navy plane crash in Harrington a few weeks ago. … What would happen if a plane was on that training mission and crashed there?”

Bever and others point to some very carefully worded public statements made by base officials, in which a possible objection or concern could be inferred. But the careful wording of the statements is so very careful that you must dig like a pig after a truffle to draw any conclusion. It certainly is a far cry from the certainty being sounded by project opponents.

That mealy-mouthed distance means that, when it comes to encroachment at Fairchild, we are asked to take secondhand concerns at face value. Is that good enough to deny the tribe the chance to boost its economy – on land that was once its own, before the U.S. cavalry drove them off?

Fairchild’s near-silence allows this question to thrive. It drives the debate into strange, Strangelove-ish corners, where the discussion includes not only whether the casino would encroach on the base – but whether the base itself thinks the casino would encroach on the base.

Even Bever acknowledges frustration over the silence.

“I wish Fairchild or (the Air Mobility Command) or the Pentagon or someone would just talk about how this might impact the training mission at Fairchild,” he said.

Until then, they’re not talking.

And not talking about why they’re not talking.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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