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Casino opponents blast Spokane Tribe-funded study released last week

UPDATED: Wed., May 8, 2013, 6 p.m.

Critics of the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino and resort at Airway Heights took issue Wednesday with the findings of a consultant’s study that claimed the project poses no threat to nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

Jim McDevitt, a former U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington and a retired Washington Air National Guard chief of staff, said the tribe-funded study misrepresented Air Force flight records and misleads the community about the impact if a casino is built directly under the path of Fairchild training flights.

In particular, McDevitt lambasted a statement in the study claiming the possibility of an accident or crash near the casino is “very low or non-existent.”

“To dismiss the possibility (of a crash of an aircraft) is absolute garbage,” said McDevitt, who served as an aircraft navigator during five years of active duty and served as a reserve officer for 25 more years.

Records show three major crashes involving Fairchild crews have occurred at the base in the past 50 years.

McDevitt said slow turns made over the proposed site on training flights raises safety risks “because the crew is flying low and slow” and is making frequent adjustments as they take off or land.

The press event was organized by Greater Spokane Incorporated, which has opposed the casino for more than two years. It targeted a study performed by Madison Government Affairs, of Washington D.C., that concluded the Spokanes’ STEP (Spokane Tribe Economic Project) presents no threat to the mission of Fairchild. The Madison study was released last week.

Attempts Wednesday to reach Spokane Tribal Council members were unsuccessful. But a public relations firm working for the Spokane Tribe provided written responses from Paul Hirsch, the author of the Madison study.

Hirsch said accusations that the study was flawed and biased in favor of the tribe are groundless. He said he agreed to do the project for the Spokane Tribe only if he could remain independent and objective.

“I told them we were not there… to ratify their project,” Hirsch said.

He also said Greater Spokane Incorporated’s claim on a handout Wednesday that that he is “biased and unreliable” as an analyst of Fairchild issues is “offensive.”

GSI alleged that Hirsch worked on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) staff in 1993, when Fairchild was one of the bases evaluated. The Spokane base later was removed from consideration.

Hirsch said he left the BRAC staff before the 1993 process started.

GSI President and CEO Rich Hadley said staff members found the information on the Internet and that no one verified whether Hirsch took part in the 1993 BRAC deliberations. The U.S. Department of Interior has the next say in the proposed casino project, but no date for that agency’s decision is set. If approved by the Interior Department, Gov. Jay Inslee would have to approve or reject the casino.

Critics have said land uses such as a large casino and resort could lead the Defense Department to close or reduce the base’s operations in the next BRAC review, possibly as soon as 2015.

Hadley noted that Fairchild is a finalist to become the first primary operating base for the Air Force’s next-generation air refueling tanker, the KC-46A. That decision may come as soon as May 15.

McDevitt, the former U.S. Attorney, called himself “passionate” in his protection of Fairchild and said his opposition is based on communications he’s had with Air Force personnel and his conviction that “this is wrong place for this kind of complex.”

He also said “it turns my stomach that the study takes the neutral stance by the Air Force (about the project) as benign support, which is not true.” Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove ridiculed the Madison report for presenting itself as objective, noting it was primarily a paid commercial for the interests of the tribe. While he supports the Spokane Tribe’s effort to build a casino near Spokane, Trulove said the selected site in Airways Heights “is the worst possible choice.”

The casino site is less than two miles from the air base. It’s also several miles from the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Resort and Casino. The Kalispels also oppose a second casino in that area, saying it would jeopardize that tribe’s programs and businesses.

Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing said the project will add thousands of jobs. He also said he’s met with Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Kathleen Ferguson, who told him the community’s West Plains land use planning near the airport is effectively protecting it from encroachment.

Both Hadley and McDevitt, however, say the Air Force position really is a silence constrained by political pressure.

“If this were a project by Walt Worthy or Red Lion Hotels, the Air Force would have directly come out and said it’s not a good thing,” Hadley said. “But a tribe is not held to the same standard as a private entity would be.”

McDevitt said he’s discussed the neutrality issue with Air Force officials. “The Air Force has been instructed not to take a stance, because this is about relations with a sovereign entity.

“The (top) executives will not pit the Air Force directly against the BIA. Politically, it’s not in the cards,” McDevitt said.

Also on hand Wednesday were Spokane County Commissioners Al French and Todd Mielke, and Melanie Tubbs, a spokeswoman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Mielke said the county commission opposes the casino, citing concerns for public safety, encroachment of Fairchild, and long-term tax losses affecting Spokane County if the casino and retail project are built.

Tubbs read a segment from a four-page letter sent to the BIA on May 1 by McMorris Rodgers, also opposing the casino and resort.