The Spokane Tribe’s reservation, plus land it holds in trust in Airway Heights and Chewelah, was named one of nine Promise Zones, giving it the chance for more federal help to fight poverty and unemployment.
“It opens opportunities,” Tribal Chairwoman Carol Evans said of the new designation, which comes after years of “bottom up” discussions and planning by tribal members and potential partners. “You have to continue working on your plan, and promote it.”
President Barack Obama announced nine new Promise Zones, which include one other reservation in North Dakota as well as areas in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Nashville, at the White House Monday.
Evans said the Spokane Reservation struggles with high unemployment, at times approaching 45 percent, and hopes the designation will help with plans to build highly energy efficient, low-income housing; a special corporation that will focus on renewable energy like solar and biomass; and a tribal technology enterprise that will expand broadband access on the reservation and surrounding areas.
“There’s a huge gap in access to broadband in rural areas,” Evans said. The tribe hopes to develop its technology enterprise operation in Airway Heights, either sharing the tribal trust land where it has proposed a hotel, casino and retail development or on land the tribe owns nearby.
Its application says another goal is developing Wellpinit, where the tribe’s headquarters are located, into a more livable community with green, energy-efficient buildings and pedestrian-friendly streets.
Plans for the Spokane Tribe’s Promise Zone also include hopes to reduce crime by revising the tribe’s antiquated legal code and through community policing, the White House said in its announcement.
In a letter supporting the tribe’s application, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the designation could also help with formal accreditation of the Spokane Tribal College and move it to an updated, high-tech facility. It would also help its economic revitalization plan through partnerships with Small Business Administration programs.
The designation covers the tribe’s 250 square miles of reservation in Eastern Washington as well as 140 acres in Airway Heights and 180 acres in Chewelah. It doesn’t come with any federal money, but it will give the tribe priority for some federal programs and could improve chances for partnerships with foundations, Evans said.
The city of Spokane also applied to have seven northeast neighborhoods designated a Promise Zone. It was a finalist but was not selected. Mayor David Condon said the partnerships developed in the application process will help create new opportunities in that area.
Promise Zones are a program by the Obama administration, and there’s no guarantee they won’t disappear with the next administration.
“I would think anyone would be afraid of that, but we can’t let these ideas die,” Evans said.
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