What was supposed to be a one-of-a-kind deal could become a routine request now that Gov. Jay Inslee has given a thumbs-up to the Spokane Tribe’s $400 million gambling and retail megacenter on the West Plains.
It’s not far from the Northern Quest Resort and Casino, which was supposed to be that unique project. But now the state will have two tribal casinos built off reservation land, and they’re both in Spokane County, near Fairchild Air Force Base.
Lucky us, right? Maybe not.
Both projects were built for the same reason – tribes looking to help their members lift themselves up. When the Kalispels built, the Spokanes weren’t moved by that rationale. The situation flipped when the Spokanes said they wanted a casino near town, too.
The biggest victim of the new casino will probably be the old one. Proponents of the Spokanes’ project point to the future projected economic impact, but it doesn’t take into account the businesses, such as Northern Quest, that will take a hit.
When lawmakers propose expansion of nontribal gambling, the tribes are quick to note how gambling dollars are finite and that competition is a threat. When they propose their own projects, they declare the economic pie to be large enough for all.
It’s a hard argument to swallow.
Much of the money spent at tribal casinos is money that won’t be spent elsewhere. Some taxpaying enterprises in the city and county will lose business to the casinos, which do not pay taxes. This region is hoping to expand public transit and improve infrastructure to lure more businesses. That takes tax dollars, which don’t flow much from exempt tribal businesses. The Kalispels have made generous contributions to the community, but their ability to continue to do so may be compromised.
The fate of Fairchild Air Force Base is also a concern. Over the years, the base has taken a neutral position, not wanting to take sides in local political battles. Privately, some top brass have expressed concerns with encroachment, including this casino. The governor said he had personal conversations with two Air Force officials who say the project is not a threat.
These conflicting opinions are not binding or definitive, which leads us to believe further encroachment represents a gamble. Leaders come and go and missions change. Giving Fairchild more room to operate gives it more options.
We also cannot ignore the politics of the Spokane Tribe’s project. The tribe has contributed to various political campaigns. The county initially took a neutral stance, along with a cut of future casino proceeds, and then became opposed when the makeup of the Spokane County Commission changed. Spokane City Council went from opposed to “neutral” when Democrats took the majority. The state’s congressional delegation has remained largely on the sidelines.
The more tribal gambling expands, the harder it is to say no to other tribes. The proof is right in front of us. Also the pressure builds to allow nontribal businesses to get in on the action.
After 10 years of pursuing a new casino, the Spokane Tribe can declare victory. But there will be losers, too. The extent of those losses is cause for anxiety.
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