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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Airway Heights mayor, others protest county’s fight against casino

Protesters holding signs outside Spokane County’s Public Works building on Tuesday listen to speakers decry the county’s attempts to stop the Spokane Tribe’s proposed casino development near Airway Heights and Fairchild Air Force Base. (Jesse Tinsley)

A group supporting a proposed Spokane tribal casino and resort rallied in front of the Spokane County Courthouse on Tuesday decrying the spending by county commissioners to fight the project.

Ed Clark, part of the consulting team working to advance the casino project, said the Spokane Tribe Economic Project would bring 5,000 jobs and $450 million in investment to the region.

Those standing near him carried placards that said, “We support jobs, not wasteful spending!”

Clark said, “The county commissioners don’t seem to get it.”

Bonnie Mager, who has announced her candidacy for a return to the County Commission seat she lost in 2010, said, “We are supposed to be looking at economic development. We are supposed to be looking at putting people to work.”

Mager, who is running as an independent, has said she plans to challenge incumbent Republican Commissioner Al French on this year’s ballot. French unseated Mager four years ago. Democrat Mary Lou Johnson already has officially filed to challenge French.

In the past 18 months, county commissioners have spent $300,000 to fight the Spokane tribal casino project. They argue that it would be an encroachment threat to Fairchild Air Force Base.

The money was paid to Perkins Coie LLP, a national law firm with expertise on tribal casino approvals.

The proposal has been undergoing review at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which must approve the project before it can go forward.

In a letter to the bureau last month, county commissioners said that the proposed casino site, west of Craig Road and north of U.S. Highway 2, lies beneath one of the busiest training routes used by Fairchild pilots. The county paid $28,000 to have the letter prepared.

The commissioners argued that the project site should be considered for designation as a crash zone that has reduced human activity.

Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing, who participated in Tuesday’s rally, said there is ample evidence in the record that the Air Force has said the casino project is not a threat.

He said the casino resort in the city of Airway Heights is “a compatible use to Fairchild Air Force Base.”

Mike Foley, president of the Northeastern Washington, North Idaho Building and Construction Trades Council, said the money spent to fight the casino project could have been used for parks, libraries and maintaining roads.

The project could bring 2,000 construction jobs and 3,000 ongoing jobs running the casino, he said.

French, in responding to the rally, said there is plenty of evidence that the Air Force has issued concerns about encroachment.

The Air Force has not taken a stand on the proposed casino.

French said the state’s growth management law requires commissioners to protect military installations. The base generates $1.3 billion in economic activity locally and supports 6,000 jobs directly and another 6,000 jobs indirectly, he said. French said the Spokane casino project jobs numbers are inflated. He said Northern Quest Casino has about 2,000 ongoing jobs.

French also said he is concerned about the casino resort drawing sales away from taxpaying businesses for an estimated loss in sales tax alone of $3.4 million a year.