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Inslee approves Spokane Tribe’s West Plains casino project

By Kip Hill and Nicholas Deshais The Spokesman-Review

Ten years after it first asked to build a casino on its tribal lands in the West Plains, the Spokane Tribe won final approval from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to build a $400 million gaming and retail development.

Inslee made his decision a year after the U.S. Department of the Interior gave the casino a green light, the last hurdle before Inslee’s approval.

The governor’s approval follows years of opposition from downtown business interests, Spokane County leaders and the Kalispel Tribe, which operates Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights. Those groups gave no signs of giving up their fight Wednesday, as they continued to harshly criticize the casino proposal, which is called the Spokane Tribe Economic Project – STEP.

There was no sign of opposition at a well-attended news conference Wednesday afternoon, but blustery winds joined the more than 100 people who listened to tribal officials praise people who helped realize the project, including Inslee.

Carol Evans, Spokane tribal chairwoman, said Inslee called her at 11:32 a.m. with the news, but she had to keep it to herself for an hour while Inslee informed other officials.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” Evans told the crowd of many tribal members. “We’re thankful. We’re a good people. And now we can move forward to provide for the needs of our tribal people. We can move forward to employ members of this community. We can move forward to create jobs for the community. We’re excited, we’re partners and we can always be friends of this land and of you.”

Economic boost

The project’s proponents point to the $400 million expected to be spent to build the project over 10 years, the 5,000 jobs it will create and the $66 million annual payroll as reasons enough to support it.

Evans said revenue from the project will combat poverty on the reservation, create health care and education opportunities for tribal members and provide for the tribe’s oldest people.

“Gaming isn’t the end all, but it provides the means to provide for our people,” said Evans, noting that a college tuition fund would be created, and the money will help mitigate long-standing environmental issues on tribal lands. “This will help with some of those issues.”

But first the mixed-use development must be built.

Jerry Hill, a developer with Warner Hospitality of Las Vegas, said full construction of the project would take at least 10 years. When complete, the 145-acre project will have a casino resort, restaurants, bars, a tribal cultural center, police and fire stations, a spa and retail space.

Hill said construction would begin as soon as possible, and the project’s first phase, a gaming facility, would be open a year from now.

The tribe estimates the facility will generate about $4.7 million in annual state, county and local taxes.

“This is a momentous day for our region, the state of Washington and, most importantly, the Spokane Tribe,” Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said. “I know it will leave a lasting legacy not only for our community, but it will also lift people out of poverty in our entire region.”

Fairchild infringement?

Despite such promises of economic prosperity, opponents have long focused on the project’s proximity to Fairchild Air Force Base. They say construction of a large retail and casino development adjacent to the base would make the base more likely to be targeted in a new round of base closures.

Todd Mielke, CEO of the regional chamber of commerce, Greater Spokane Incorporated, said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that Fairchild’s presence already was “filling the cash registers of local businesses” in the Inland Northwest, while the STEP project has yet to be built.

“This is something we already have in this community,” Mielke said. “It’s not a speculative project that may or may not occur in the future. That’s what we have today.”

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has expressed concern about the proposed casino development and its effect on Fairchild, but has stopped short of opposing the tribe’s plans. She continued in that position in a statement issued Wednesday.

“While I support the Spokane Tribe’s desire for economic development, I’ve always believed that the potential impact of the project’s location on Fairchild Air Force Base should be the primary factor in determining whether to allow it to move forward,” McMorris Rodgers said in the statement.

Greater Spokane Incorporated and county commissioners scheduled a downtown news conference to speak against the project at the same time tribal leaders heralded the decision in Airway Heights. At the conference, Mielke spoke in front of an aerial map showing flight paths of training maneuvers into Fairchild. At the center, a red square indicated where the tribe plans to build the casino.

“I don’t know anyone who would look at this map and say there’s not a problem,” Mielke said.

Stuckart, for one, said there’s no problem, and suggested Mielke and others were fabricating reasons to oppose the project. He criticized Mielke and others for holding the dueling news conference.

“People get jealous,” Stuckart said. “They make up reasons to oppose projects. I think there are three county commissioners right downtown, along with our economic development arm, holding a press conference talking about how they are actually opposed to economic development in our region. That’s not their role. Their role is to support economic development in our region.”

Stuckart said he spoke with former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Terry Yonkers, who served in the position from 2010 to 2013 and was involved in reviewing the casino proposal. Yonkers wrote in an email to Stuckartthe casino was an “insignificant disruption to the mission.”

“They think if they say there’s a problem enough times, it will just become true,” Stuckart said.

In a letter to the Department of the Interior, which gave its approval to the project last summer, Inslee said he met earlier this year with Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Miranda Ballentine.

“Based on these meetings and our correspondence, the record establishes that STEP will not interfere with Fairchild’s current operations, or negatively impact future Air Force citing decisions,” Inslee wrote. “To give more assurance that STEP will not be detrimental to this critical installation, the Tribe has committed to specific mitigation measures.”

Mielke and his former colleagues on the County Commission, Al French and Shelly O’Quinn, said they disagreed with Inslee’s assessment and cited private conversations with local Air Force officials whom they say voiced concerns about the location of the casino.

“Every single community member that has met with the Air Force would disagree with that statement,” O’Quinn said of Inslee’s assurance the Air Force would not base future decisions on the casino.

But O’Quinn, Mielke and others won’t provide names of specific Air Force officials opposing the project.

“We’ve had lots of discussions with some very high-ranking military people within the Air Force, lots of stars involved on their shoulders, and there’s been some real mixed feedback from them,” said Bill Savitz, a former chairman of the civic group Forward Fairchild that is dedicated to protecting operations at the military base. “But, for the most part, it would seem to me that you would want to err to the side of conservative and not take the risk with that facility in that location.”

Casino competition

Inslee acknowledged the Spokane Tribe’s project would create “substantial economic competition” to Northern Quest. But he added the Kalispel’s casino created competition for the Spokane Tribe’s smaller, existing casinos when it was built.

April Pierre, a spokeswoman with the Kalispel Tribe, said the tribe was “deeply disappointed.”

“The STEP development will harm the Kalispel Tribe and our ability to provide essential services to our members,” Pierre said in a statement. “While we support the Spokane Tribe’s goal to create more economic opportunity for its members, we cannot support a strategy that comes at such a high cost to our own people and so clearly does not meet the narrow criteria required by federal gaming law.”

Pierre did not say if the Kalispel Tribe would take legal action to block the Spokane Tribe’s casino proposal.

The Spokane Tribe’s project is only the second time an Indian casino off a reservation has been approved in Washington. The first was Northern Quest.

Last year, four legislators from Western Washington called on Inslee to deny the tribe’s application, saying it could “open the floodgates to gaming in every community in our state, whether the local community wants it or not.”

But Inslee’s letter notes that in the nearly 20 years since the Kalispel project was approved, no other off-reservation casino has gone forward until now.

County loses revenue

The Spokane County Commission initially took a neutral position on the project but formally opposed it after French replaced Commissioner Bonnie Mager in 2011. Since then, county leaders have argued Fairchild would be put at risk.

In August 2010, then-County Commissioner Mark Richard joined Mager in support of an agreement with the tribe and Airway Heights to share potential revenues from the proposed gaming project. That deal prohibited participating governments from formally opposing the casino. Noting the tribe was not required to pay local and state sales tax, the governments acknowledged a desire “to cooperate, and where possible, to partner in the development,” according to the agreement. Mielke, then a county commissioner, cast the lone vote against the revenue-sharing agreement.

In January 2013, Mielke, French and O’Quinn voted to withdraw from the agreement and took an official stance opposing the development. But Airway Heights will continue to receive payments to cover the costs of extending water, sewer and other services to the planned development. Albert Tripp, Airway Heights city manager, said the city will receive $600,000 the first year gaming occurs on the site and an additional $100,000 every year after for eight years. The amount will then increase by 3 percent annually until payments exceed $2 million, at which time a new contract can be negotiated.

Tripp noted the city of Airway Heights has supported the casino project “from the beginning.” The site of the proposed casino was annexed into the city in May 2012.

Airway Heights Mayor Kevin Richey and Deputy Mayor Tanya Dashiell both praised the project Wednesday.

Under the revenue sharing agreement the commission voted to terminate, Spokane County would have received 20 percent of that money each year, which means a potential $400,000 annually was left on the table.

French said Wednesday he had no regrets about ending that agreement, which occurred after he said the scope of the project “far exceeded” what the county expected.

“Heavens no, absolutely not,” French said. “The long-term interest of the county, and the responsibility of the county to protect its citizens of the negative financial impact that will occur, is well worth the money we spent in terms of getting our citizens a voice in the process.”

O’Quinn accused Inslee, in approving the project, of flouting the very same land-use regulations that have resulted in the state taking legal action against Spokane County over urban development.

“Every single standard that we are being held to, he’s violating by approving this,” O’Quinn said of the governor.

French said the county would be exploring its legal options, if it has any, to oppose Inslee’s decision.

The Spokane Tribe first proposed the casino project in 2006, and worked with local governments between 2008 and 2012 to forge agreements. In 2012, the tribe submitted its application to the Inter Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. A final environmental impact statement was completed in 2013. In 2015, the Interior Department approved the project.

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