Guest opinion: STEP is good for tribe, region
In Spokane County, we know the pain of joblessness and underemployment. As parts of Washington rebound from the Great Recession, we continue to experience unemployment higher than the statewide average; unemployment and poverty remain among the highest in the state.
With Congress gridlocked and Olympia unable to reach consensus on meaningful fixes, we need private investment more than ever. We hear often how corporations say they’re holding back because of economic uncertainty. But in Spokane County there’s a game-changing proposal: The Spokane Tribe Economic Project will invest $400 million to develop 145 acres of vacant land into retail, restaurants, a hotel and, yes, a casino.
Let’s repeat: STEP would plow $400 million into an area where 30 percent of residents live in poverty. It would create 5,000 construction-related and permanent jobs. It would add $6.6 million to our tax rolls when it’s being built, and $4.7 million every year after that.
Annual payroll would be $50 million. There is no better anti-poverty program than that.
STEP would be an entertainment destination that will promote economic growth and stability for the entire region.
As business leaders who care about our community, we know that opportunities like STEP don’t come around very often. And as trustees of the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund ( www.smith-barbieri.com), a charitable foundation with a primary mission of reducing poverty in the Inland Northwest, we know how much we need this economic generator.
So why has STEP generated such unprecedented and unjustified opposition?
Detractors say STEP would negatively impact Fairchild Air Force Base. But the tribe has worked extensively with the U.S. Air Force to ensure development would be in line with Fairchild’s needs. The Federal Aviation Administration repeatedly determined that STEP would not impact flight operations.
This issue has been thoroughly researched and the verdict rendered: STEP would not encroach on Fairchild.
In reality, Fairchild remaining or closing is based on other factors, most of which are out of our control and are simply part of the larger military picture. The thought that a few elected officials and others in our community would try to stop a great economic addition only to possibly lose Fairchild regardless is unconscionable.
We cannot create an economic desert around Fairchild and keep our fingers crossed that Pentagon accountants won’t decide that consolidation is a better fit for our defense posture and national budget. It’s time to move forward with STEP.
Change is always frightening. There are those who fear competition from STEP, who say that it will be too successful. They are concerned about the nearby Kalispel Tribe casino and downtown businesses.
But we believe in competition. We believe in capitalism. We believe that stifling economic growth only leads to stagnation and decay.
We currently experience enough hardship in our community and on the reservation. More than 45 percent of residents on the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ reservation work for such low earnings they still fall beneath the federal poverty level. About 15 percent of reservation residents have college degrees, compared to 36 percent in Spokane County.
The tribe is committed to increasing tribal employment for the 70 percent of working-age tribal members who reside within 40 miles of the site. In addition to employment opportunities, the income from STEP will be used to significantly expand tribal governmental services, including those focused on improving the health, education, welfare of tribal members, and the substantial natural resources management needs of the tribe’s 157,376-acre reservation, including critically needed basic infrastructure improvements to the tribe’s drinking water and public sanitation systems.
This is a moral issue. It’s also about dollars and cents.
We have four decades of experience developing hotels, office buildings, shopping malls and residential complexes, including downtown Spokane and the region. We’ve been intimately involved in many aspects of our region’s economic development for decades. We fully understand the complexity and challenges of our regional economy. And we completely support the Spokane Tribe’s desire to create jobs. The project has many community supporters, including the Airway Heights City Council, current and former regional mayors, business leaders and labor groups, including the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters and Northeastern Washington-Northern Idaho Building and Construction Trades Council.
We hope you will join us for the sake of the tribe and our region. It’s time to create jobs, build stronger communities and turn 145 acres of dirt into a shining example of the power of private investment.
Sharon Smith and Don Barbieri are the trustees for the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, a charitable foundation dedicated to building on the Inland Northwest’s strong foundation to reduce poverty, broaden low-cost affordable housing, and foster a more dynamic and knowledgeable constituency.