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Shawn Vestal: Cracks showing in anti-casino arguments

Wed., Feb. 26, 2014, midnight

The Air Force said what?

We have been assured – over and over again – by the institutional voices of reason that we cannot tolerate a new casino from the Spokane Tribe near Fairchild Air Force Base.

And even though Air Force officials are officially neutral and consistently vague or simply silent about this, the assurances from civic and political leaders have been unequivocal: The casino would threaten the base by presenting an “encroachment” threat in possible future rounds of base closures. Even if this chance is small, casino opponents say, the economic importance of Fairchild is too great to risk.

Casino opponents have also often said that the Air Force and base officials oppose the casino but simply cannot express their views publicly.

Well, now the Air Force – or a former Air Force honcho, at least – has expressed a public view. And it is utterly at odds with the picture that Fairchild supporters have presented.

The former assistant secretary for installations, environments and logistics for the Air Force has sent a letter to City Council President Ben Stuckart, noting that the casino proposal did initially alarm him but that the Fairchild wing commander felt the risks were “low” and represented an “insignificant disruption to the Fairchild flying mission.”

Insignificant? Does that sound anything at all like what we have been led to believe is the unexpressed view held by the Air Force regarding the casino?

Former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers’ assessment of insignificance was made back in 2010. Since then, Yonkers writes, the tribe has scaled back both the footprint and proposed height of its project to address concerns that even then were minor.

Yonkers’ letter – which Stuckart read Monday before the City Council voted to back away from its previous opposition to the project – is as close to a clear public statement that anyone has ever heard from the Air Force regarding the Spokane Tribe’s casino/hotel proposal.

Here’s the way he lays it out:

In 2010, he was visited by Spokane community leaders to talk about various Fairchild issues, including the casino proposal. In preparing for the meeting, Yonkers writes, he was initially alarmed to hear the casino would be 12 to 14 stories tall and near flight paths for the base.

He said his staff reported that most flights leaving the base would not go over the casino site, and it was “completely outside the accident potential zones and clear zones.” His staff also noted minor concerns about lights from the project affecting pilot visibility.

After that, he sought out the position of the wing commander at Fairchild, Col. Paul Guemmer. “I was told that Col. Guemmer had some concerns, but that the risks were low and presented an insignificant disruption to the Fairchild flying mission,” Yonkers wrote. “Following the staff’s briefing, I called General Ray Johns, Commander of Air Mobility Command, and asked Ray the same question. General Johns held the same position as Commander Guemmer.”

Yonkers says that his conversation with the community leaders was “along those lines.” He said he repeated this to Spokane civic leaders in a later meeting. Yonkers retired in March.

Rich Hadley, the head of Greater Spokane Incorporated and one of the foremost voices against encroachment at Fairchild, said he had not heard Yonkers expressing these views in meetings with local officials. He said that the complicated series of issues surrounding encroachment make it possible for people to draw different conclusions. He noted that retired wing commanders from Fairchild have expressed their concerns about flying over a crowded entertainment complex; like Yonkers, they are freer to speak in retirement, he said.

For him, though, the bottom line is that the cumulative effect of development around the base could hurt Fairchild’s chances to survive a base-closure process. Flights over the casino are one concern. Another is that if the casino moves forward, and casino guests object to the noise, Fairchild could face calls to alter its flight patterns, an unintended consequence down the road that might also count against the base in a budget-cutting time.

“We’re doing all these things to protect the base, its mission and its 6,000 jobs,” he said.

The Spokane Tribe Economic Project is controversial for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the presence of another tribe’s casino in Airway Heights and the Spokane Tribe’s sometimes-prickly relations with local governments and leaders.

But encroachment has been the biggest rallying cry for opponents of the project, and the Air Force’s supposed opposition to the casino – its secret, inexpressible opposition – has been the foundation that house was built on.

This foundation seems sandier every day. When the Air Force passed over Fairchild to house new tankers earlier this year, it cited encroachment – but by a trailer park, not the proposed casino. Airway Heights officials, Spokane Tribe representatives and other STEP supporters say this further solidifies the notion that the casino would not endanger future base operations.

The tribe also points to studies by the Federal Aviation Administration and Bureau of Indian Affairs that say the project doesn’t threaten Air Force operations. It also commissioned a study that concluded the risk of a crash at the casino was “low or non-existent.”

Casino opponents dismissed that assertion as “garbage.”

It sounds like the Air Force might have a different view.

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

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