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Spokane Tribe betting on new casino that opens Monday

The Spokane Tribe Casino opens Monday evening, creating a new West Plains venue for gamblers to test their luck.

Beyond the flash of Vegas-style slot machines and table games lie the Spokane Tribe’s aspirations for a better future.

With the opening of the off-reservation gaming hall, the Spokane Tribe plans to do what neighboring tribes have done: Create a steady revenue stream to help fund tribal programs.

“We want to provide opportunities,” said Carol Evans, chairwoman for the 2,900-member Spokane Tribe. “We want to give our young people the tools to help them succeed.”

On the Spokane reservation, unemployment rates hover around 50 percent. Housing is in short supply. Many tribal buildings need repairs. The tribe wants to expand its clinic, increasing diabetes prevention and wellness programs; send more students to college on scholarships; and expand Salish language and cultural programs.

The casino is a catalyst for achieving those long-term goals, Evans said. But getting the $40 million casino built on 145 acres of trust land on U.S. Highway 2 has been an arduous process for the Spokane Tribe.

Nearly 30 years ago, the Spokanes were among the first Washington tribes to pursue gaming for economic development. After negotiation and litigation, the tribe opened the Two Rivers Casino north of Davenport, offering slot machines. The tribe later added a small casino in Chewelah.

“We helped open up gaming for other tribes,” Evans said.

But competition from the Coeur d’Alene and Kalispel tribes eventually cut into the Spokane Tribe’s gaming receipts. The other tribes built casinos closer to Spokane, capturing more of the lucrative urban market.

In 2006, the Spokane Tribe asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine whether the Airway Heights property was suitable for off-reservation gaming.

After nine years, the U.S. Department of Interior gave a green light to the project. Gov. Jay Inslee gave his approval a year later. Along the way, the casino faced opposition from the Kalispel Tribe, which operates the nearby Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Airway Heights, and community leaders concerned about the casino’s proximity to Fairchild Air Force Base.

Evans credits the hard work of many tribal leaders for getting the casino built.

“It’s been a lengthy process, but our tribe has been here forever,” she said. “We have always been a people of strong will. We are always people who will stand up for our rights. We always knew that we would prevail.”

Historically and culturally, the opening of a casino on the West Plains is significant for the Spokane Tribe, said David BrownEagle, the tribe’s vice chairman. The West Plains is in the heart of the tribe’s aboriginal territory. Battles between area tribes and Col. George Wright were fought there in 1858.

“Right through here, the blood of our people was spilled,” BrownEagle said.

But even as the Spokane Tribe celebrates the casino’s opening, it is reaching out to the local community, Evans and BrownEagle said. The time for divisions is past, they said.

The Spokane Tribe looks forward to being a partner to local governments and business groups, Evans said. The entire region will benefit from the jobs and economic activity generated by the casino, she said.

And despite the Kalispel Tribe’s opposition to the Spokane Tribe Casino, the tribes retain warm personal ties, Evans said. Many members of the Spokane Tribe have Kalispel relatives.

“It’s not just about the Spokane Tribe, it’s about us as a community,” Evans said. “We want to be part of the West Plains. We want to build relationships. We want to be here for the whole area.”

Brightening futures

In Indian Country, casinos are sometimes referred to as “the new buffalo.” Like the woolly beasts that once supported Plains Indians, casino profits have revived tribal economies by pumping millions of dollars into government and social programs, such as senior housing, Native language classes, wellness centers and college tuition for tribal youth.

Nearly 25 years ago, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe opened a small bingo hall on U.S. Highway 95 near Worley, Idaho. At the time, unemployment was about 70 percent on the reservation. Most of the jobs were seasonal, in logging or agriculture.

Now, “every tribal member who wants a job is working,” said Francis SiJohn, the Coeur d’Alene Casino’s chief executive officer. “We’ve become a major employer in North Idaho.”

From its humble beginnings, the Coeur d’Alene Casino has grown into a resort complex with a hotel, golf course, entertainment venue and spa that draws customers from a 300-mile radius. About 1,000 people work there, including many from surrounding communities.

The Kalispel Tribe has had similar success with the Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Airway Heights, which opened in 2000. The tribe’s council pursued a gaming facility after wrestling with ways to fund alcohol recovery programs on the Kalispels’ reservation, said Curt Holmes, a council member and executive director of public and government affairs for the 475-member tribe.

Northern Quest has grown into a gaming-hotel complex that employs about 1,400 people. A major expansion is underway, which will add an RV resort with a swimming pool, arcade for kids, boutique movie theater and more retail.

Unlike local, state and federal governments, tribes don’t have a traditional tax base, Holmes said. Gaming revenues support government services on the Kalispels’ reservation in northeast Washington.

New hires at Northern Quest visit the reservation as part of their orientation. It helps employees understand the tribe’s bigger mission, which is financed by gaming receipts, Holmes said.

The casinos have allowed young tribal members to return to the Coeur d’Alene and Kalispel reservations to find career-path employment, SiJohn and Holmes said.

And not just in gaming-related jobs, Holmes said.

“They can become a fish biologist or an attorney for the tribe. They can become a nurse or doctor,” he said. “Gaming (revenue) has definitely done that. It’s created those employment opportunities.”

Legal challenges

Early on, the Spokane Tribe Casino’s proximity to Fairchild Air Force Base generated controversy. Business leaders and Spokane County’s board of commissioners raised concerns about the casino complex “encroaching” on the flight path of aircraft approaching the base, the region’s largest employer.

Spokane County remains opposed to the casino’s location. In June, the county filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the Department of Interior’s finding that the casino wouldn’t be detrimental to the surrounding community. The suit said construction of the casino complex could jeopardize the base’s chance of landing new air refueling tankers and make it a target in future rounds of base closures. A hearing is expected on the lawsuit this spring.

The Kalispel Tribe also filed a federal lawsuit last year, saying operation of the Spokane Tribe Casino would harm Northern Quest by reducing its revenues. The Spokane Tribe Casino is about 2 miles from Northern Quest.

The Spokane Tribe’s leaders, however, have steadfastly maintained the local market has room for another casino. They also disputed that the casino would encroach on Fairchild or threaten the base’s future.

The casino’s environmental impact statement, prepared by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, concurred with the tribe on both points. The impact statement concluded that some gamblers would switch the tribal casino they patronize but said competing casinos aren’t likely to close.

Fairchild was a cooperating agency in the preparation of the impact statement. Neither base officials nor other Air Force brass raised encroachment concerns. A Washington, D.C., consulting firm hired by the Spokane Tribe reached a similar conclusion. The tribe also adopted a development code for the project to address potential impacts, including capping future hotel tower heights at 60 feet.

Scott King, a Fairchild spokesman, said last week that the base maintains its neutral position on the project. Base officials are working with the tribe on issues such as light, glare and other potential hazards to aircraft, he said.

“We’re going to do our best to be good neighbors with the Spokane Tribe,” King said.

Todd Mielke, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated, a business group that initially opposed the casino, said the past is “water under the bridge.”

“We’re beyond the point where those decisions can be rehashed,” he said. “We trust that everybody will do what they say they will do. The community should be fine.”

Evans, the tribe’s chairwoman, said the Spokanes look forward to working with GSI on regional business initiatives.

“We’re definitely a people who keep our word,” she said.

The tribe is already working closely with the city of Airway Heights. Since the tribe won’t pay local property taxes, the tribe and the city have negotiated annual payments to reimburse Airway Heights for providing city services to the casino complex.

Albert Tripp, Airway Heights’ city manager, said casino development has helped diversify the city’s economy and attract other businesses there.

“We believe it will be a welcome addition for the region,” he said of the Spokane Tribe Casino.

Expanding offerings

Both Northern Quest and the Coeur d’Alene Casino expect to lose market share to the Spokane Tribe Casino.

Unlike Las Vegas, which draws people from all over the world, “Spokane has a very finite gaming market … and it has plateaued,” the Kalispel Tribe’s Holmes said.

But competition is to be expected, said SiJohn, the Coeur d’Alene Casino CEO. Casino patrons are always looking for new attractions, he said.

In anticipation of the Spokane Tribe Casino opening, the Coeur d’Alene Casino beefed up its loyalty program. For years, the casino has worked to expand its offerings beyond gaming, making it more of an entertainment destination, SiJohn said.

“We congratulate the Spokane Tribe and we wish them well,” SiJohn said. “We would love to see them succeed.”

The Kalispel Tribe has taken a similar approach with Northern Quest, adding the hotel, spa and meeting rooms. The construction of a boutique theater, RV park and arcade for kids will increase the casino’s family-friendly attractions, Holmes said.

“I think in a few years, you could spend an entire weekend here and not set foot on the gaming floor,” he said.

The Spokane Tribe also has long-term plans to expand its casino. A $400 million master plan for the 145-acre site calls for additional development, such as a hotel, cultural center, entertainment venue and retail.

When the development is built out, the Spokane Tribe says the casino complex will support more than 5,000 jobs with an annual payroll of about $66 million.

Evans said the master plan is a guideline for future development, but tribal leaders will adjust it as necessary to meet market conditions.

In the meantime, “we look forward to welcoming people and sharing our hospitality,” she said.


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