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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Guest opinion: Allow tribe’s STEP project a fair chance

Bonnie Mager

It is sad that arguably the largest privately funded economic development project to come to Spokane in decades has been turned into a political football by those who appear to have huge conflicts of interest. With 5,000 jobs and $300 million in economic activity a year hanging in the balance, I think it is time to speak up.

As a Spokane County commissioner, I had many businesses, groups and individuals approach me with ideas, schemes, dreams and propositions that were all presented as great economic development opportunities for our county. No matter what the project, those who came before the commission sought support in exchange for perceived benefit; some sought financial support, others a zone or land use change, or an easement or road closure. Still others wanted us to “invest” millions to buy a race track that they were sure would solve all our financial woes.

In contrast, when the Spokane Tribe brought their Spokane Tribe Economic Development Project (STEP) to the county commissioners, they didn’t ask for taxpayer money for economic development: Their plan would pump more than $400 million in private money into the economy, generating $300 million within Spokane County alone.

And they didn’t ask to close a road to solve their stormwater or footprint problem: They spent more than $300,000 on an Environmental Impact Statement conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to assure adjustments could be made to deal with any potential problems.

Nor did they require a letter of support for the project (though they would have liked one): They knew gaming is a sensitive issue and can be politically controversial, so neutrality was all that was requested.

What they asked for was an opportunity to pursue unhindered the process, which if approved by the federal government and the governor, would enable them to create a destination resort on the West Plains. A project with a casino, yes, but a whole lot more. A project with a hotel, wellness center and retail. A project that comes with a commitment to pay their fair share, even though, as a sovereign nation, like the Kalispels who own the Northern Quest Resort and Casino, they are exempt from all taxes. A project that will provide jobs for the Airway Heights community, which has a 35 percent unemployment rate. And a project that will pump millions not just into the tribe’s economy but, because of the Tri-Party agreement, will boost the economy of our whole county.

The promise in the Tri-Party agreement does allow the project to go forward unopposed, to fail or succeed on its own merits, not background noise. If the project can meet the formidable requirements in place at the federal level (which included multiple opportunities for input and comment by the public and stakeholders, the majority of which were supportive), gain the governor’s approval for the required permit and move forward, then 5,000 future jobs will be ours, families will be fed, and a much-needed tax base will provide much-needed services.

As lead commissioner on these negotiations, they are negotiations that I can be proud of. They are negotiations that were entered in good faith and produced a fair agreement approved by each of our three governments: Spokane County, Airway Heights and the Spokane Tribe. It did provide the opportunity for a fair and unbiased evaluation untainted by special interests.

As previously stated, this process has a very high bar, and all stakeholders, including Fairchild Air Force Base, have been at the table.

I find it highly presumptuous that a few people take it upon themselves to speak for the base. I did my due diligence and spoke to the commander to make sure there were no issues with the project before I entered into negotiations on the Tri-Party agreement. He told me, personally, Fairchild had no issues with the project. If there are true issues that have surfaced, then I am confident that Fairchild is more than capable of clearly making them known without unauthorized interference or outside spokespersons taking the lead.

I believed then, and I believe now, that the STEP project should succeed or fail based on its merits and a clean process untainted by conflicts of interest hiding behind fear-factor claims about Fairchild that have little or no basis in fact.

Bonnie Mager is a former Spokane County commissioner.
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