Two years after opposing the proposed Spokane Tribe of Indians casino on the West Plains, the Spokane City Council on Monday switched its stance to neutral.
Before public testimony, Council President Ben Stuckart read an email he received from former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers. Yonkers served in the position from 2010 to 2013 and was involved in reviewing the casino proposal.
“The risks were low and presented an insignificant disruption to the mission,” Yonkers wrote.
The comment breaks the silence of Air Force officials who have reviewed the project.
The Air Force is a neutral party on the casino proposal, but opponents have asserted that behind closed doors they believe the proximity of the proposed casino to the base make it a target for closure.
Stuckart said he talked to Yonkers by phone before Yonkers decided to submit written comments.
“He knows that this is being used as an excuse, and he’s not happy about it,” Stuckart said.
A spokeswoman for the Spokane Tribe’s casino project said Yonkers is not a consultant for its project and has not been paid for his opinion.
The change of heart was made possible by the election of Councilwoman Candace Mumm in November.
Former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt noted that while the Air Force’s official position is neutral, base officials have publicly listed concerns about the project.
Those include noise, light pollution, its proximity to flight patterns and the large concentration of people. He suggested that the council endorse a Spokane Tribe casino in a different location.
“Do we want this as our legacy? And that is the potential closure of Fairchild,” McDevitt said.
Members of the Spokane Tribal Business Council, the elected body of the tribe, talked about the history of the tribe and the project.
Carol Evans, vice chairwoman for the business council, said the tribe suffers from high unemployment and poverty levels.
She noted that the Kalispel Tribe of Indians provides services for its members with money from its Northern Quest Casino.
“With their gaming funds they can provide for the unmet needs of their members,” she said.
The Kalispel Tribe opposes the Spokane Tribe’s project.
Several downtown business representatives testified that a second casino would draw business from the heart of the city.
Andrew Rowles, of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said much of the entertainment that casinos offer are loss-leaders aimed at attracting customers to gamble. That could make it hard for downtown venues to compete, he said.
Michael Smith, who manages the Bing Crosby Theater, said he noticed a drop-off in business after Northern Quest opened.
Mumm joined Stuckart and council members Jon Snyder and Amber Waldref in supporting the change.
Some council members said they were unaware until testimony at the meeting that the tribe decided to limit the height of buildings at its development to six stories. Previous plans had suggested a hotel with 14 stories. That height was often listed as a concern among those arguing that it threatens the base.