Airway Heights criticizes study by county
A Spokane County study claiming significant negative tax impacts from a proposed Spokane Tribe casino on the West Plains is drawing criticism from the city in which the casino would be built.
The Spokane Tribe Economic Project is a proposed large casino and hotel complex on 45 acres inside Airway Heights. City officials there say the STEP project would boost tax revenue by bringing more businesses to the West Plains, plus generate close to 1,000 new jobs for the area.
That view is challenged by Spokane County commissioners, who last week released a lengthy study claiming the proposed casino would have huge negative impacts in the region beyond hurting two nearby casinos operated by the Kalispel and Coeur d’Alene tribes.
The report also repeated the other major concern stated by other opponents, that STEP might jeopardize the training mission of Fairchild Air Force Base, the largest single employer in the county.
The county’s report said the Spokanes’ project would mean the loss of millions of dollars in tax revenue to Spokane County and cities in the area.
Part of that would be the result of customers spending money at the tribe’s facilities, where no sales taxes are collected, reducing the total share of sales taxes available to local governments.
County Commissioner Al French also said property taxes could be affected as area businesses hurt by the new casino would see their tax valuations decline.
The report said Spokane County faced the loss of $7.5 million in tax revenue in the first year after the STEP project is built. French said that estimate is based on assuming what the county would otherwise see in new taxes if the same project were built on nontribal property here.
Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing dismissed the county’s estimates as “laughable” and “pure speculation.” French countered, “We hired a third-party company that does economic analysis to provide that impact.”
“Ask the Airway Heights people if they hired anyone to do the same,” French said.
Airway Heights City Manager Albert Tripp said, “We have the record of what’s happened here economically over the past 12 years.”
Since the Kalispel Tribe opened Northern Quest Casino in 2000, property valuations in Airway Heights have grown by more than $101 million, Tripp said.
He also said Wal-Mart built its large West Plains store along Highway 2 in Airway Heights in large part due to the number of people going to Northern Quest.
The city and county have disagreed on STEP for months. In 2010, Spokane County commissioners signed an agreement with Airway Heights that provided the county a share of tribal casino revenue in return for not taking a stance for or against it. Commissioners this year pushed Airway Heights to revoke that agreement, insisting it was an illegal contract.
Both sides terminated the agreement earlier this year, allowing the county to produce the report opposing STEP.
Spokane County now has no arrangement with the tribe to provide money offsetting any impacts the casino has on county services, such as court resolutions or public safety response, said County Commissioner Todd Mielke.
Tripp said it’s unclear how much of an impact on services STEP would have, since the city of Airway Heights will provide fire, water, public safety and related services if the project moves forward.
The U.S. Department of the Interior needs to decide if the tribe can build the casino and resort on property bought more than 20 years ago and converted to trust land.
If the project is approved by the Interior Department, Gov. Jay Inslee must also approve it before it can be built.
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