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Sunday, September 20, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Tribe casino opponents take case to state

Opponents of a proposed Spokane Tribe project that includes a new casino on the West Plains started new attacks Tuesday to persuade Gov. Jay Inslee to block the plan, claiming it could threaten the future of nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

But Tribal Council Chairman Rudy Peone said such allegations have been raised for years, and have been “put to bed” by a series of studies and reports. Fairchild Air Force Base had plenty of opportunities to raise concerns about the project since it was first proposed in 2006, and did not do so when they had a chance in the Environmental Impact Statement.

“You can’t hang your hat on encroachment,” Peone said. “That’s fear-mongering,”

Inslee must agree with the U.S. Interior Department’s approval, announced Monday after some two years of reviewing that impact statement, for the project to go ahead. Inslee spokesman David Postman said the office was developing a plan for talking to the interested parties but doesn’t yet have a schedule for making a decision.

“I think he’ll be very deliberate, but he’ll be fair,” Peone said.

The governor has expressed concerns about the loss of military units in Washington and early this month formed what he calls a Subcabinet on Military Downsizing, primarily anticipating reductions at Joint Base Lewis McChord. That group has its first meeting today, but Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said it’s expected to be a broad overview and the possible effects of a new casino near Fairchild aren’t likely to come up.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said she plans to call Inslee and urge him to reject the project. The Republican congresswoman said she supports the tribe’s efforts for economic development but opposes the location because, in her opinion, “Fairchild comes first.”

“If we want to keep Fairchild, our responsibility is to look at potential encroachment issues,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Asked about the lack of public opposition from the Air Force to the project, McMorris Rodgers replied: “The Air Force is never going to say you can’t build a particular project.”

Peone said the congresswoman and other opponents should read the documents and reports that have been filed, including a recent study the Air Force did when deciding whether to send the first new air-refueling tankers to Fairchild. Ultimately, it decided those planes should be based in Kansas, where they would be closer to the planes they would have to refuel. That study said the casino and hotel only raised a potential for increased road traffic that could be mitigated.

A high-ranking Pentagon official also told Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn the Air Force would “work collaboratively with the Spokane Tribe as the project moves forward.”

State Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, were among a bipartisan group of legislators urging Inslee Tuesday to reject the plan, reiterating a concern in a letter they sent two years ago as the Bureau of Indian Affairs was completing its study of the project. Those legislators take a stronger stance against the project, arguing that allowing the tribe to build a casino so far off its reservation would “open the floodgates” for new tribal gaming facilities in the state.

But Parker said his main concern is the potential impact on Fairchild if Congress decides to authorize another round of base closures. “At the end of the day, what we want to avoid is putting Fairchild back on the list.”

Fairchild has been studied for closure in the past, as far back as the first Base Realignment and Closure Commission hearings in 1993. But in previous rounds of base closures, federal officials always concluded it should stay open based on its strategic value and the federal government’s investments to update infrastructure.

Congress isn’t likely to approve a base closure process in the near future, McMorris Rodgers said, but it could at some point and the Air Force has told Congress it has about 25 percent more bases than it currently needs.

Greater Spokane Inc., which serves as the area’s chamber of commerce, said it also is opposed to the location as “activity that might impair current and future missions on the base” and said the tribe should build its project elsewhere.

“Although alternative locations for this development have been presented to the Spokane Tribe, they have chosen not to pursue them,” the business group said.

A spokeswoman for GSI said those offers were made “earlier in the process.” Peone said he knew of no such offer in the last three years while he has been council chairman.

But any such alternative would mean starting the process of buying the land, putting it in trust for the tribe, and beginning the studies and reviews that have so far taken almost a decade for the West Plains site.

As part of its prepared statement, GSI released a map that first surfaced two years ago by some project opponents showing the training routes flown by tankers, an exercise known as “touch and gos.” Those routes show a racetrack pattern that takes the planes over the area where the project would be built.

That map was prepared by a Fairchild official and used two years ago in public presentations that suggested the project increased the potential for accidents. But neither Fairchild nor Air Mobility Command officials would comment about the map at the time and it was not part of the base’s response to the environmental impact statement. Instead, it was submitted as part of GSI’s opposition.

A study commissioned by the tribe concluded the bulk of Fairchild training flights would not be over the project and that the resort and casino were not a threat to the base. Peone said he believes the map has been discredited but is being used because it’s visually striking.

“If you repeat something long enough and loud enough, people will believe it,” he said.

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