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Kalispel Tribe files federal lawsuit to halt Spokane Tribe’s casino

April 18, 2017 Updated Wed., April 19, 2017 at 1:59 p.m.

Construction workers begin assembling the steel skeleton of the first phase of the Spokane Tribe of Indians casino near Airway Heights Thursday, Mar. 23, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Construction workers begin assembling the steel skeleton of the first phase of the Spokane Tribe of Indians casino near Airway Heights Thursday, Mar. 23, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Kalispel Tribe of Indians has filed a suit in federal court seeking an immediate halt to the construction of a rival casino being built in Airway Heights by the Spokane Tribe of Indians.

The Kalispels’ complaint said the the new casino will cause their tribe “significant harm.”

Lawyers for the Kalispel tribe filed the civil suit in U.S. District Court arguing that the Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to take into consideration the Spokane Tribe’s casino would adversely effect the revenues to the Northern Quest Resort and Casino.

“Unfortunately, because the BIA ignored our comments and extensive expert analysis during its decision-making process, legal action is the only avenue available to us to protect a sustainable economic future for our people,” said Curt Holmes, the Kalispel Tribe’s executive director of Public and Governmental Affairs, in a news release.

The Spokane Tribe’s attorney, Scott Wheat, could not immediately be reached for comment. The Spokane Tribe broke ground last fall on a $40 million casino with restaurants and an outdoor plaza, which is expected to open later this year. It’s the first phase of the Spokane Tribe’s plan for a $400 million casino resort branded under the Hard Rock Hotel banner.

The lawsuit was filed last week but it was assigned Tuesday to U.S. District Court Judge Fremming Nielsen.

The Spokane Tribe’s West Plains Casino is being built 2 miles to the west of Northern Quest, which opened in 2000. The Spokane Tribe has long considered the 145 acres of its new venture as part of its aboriginal territory. It was the site of the battles between the Spokanes and Col. George Wright in 1858. The tribe has worked nine years to get approval, which Gov. Jay Inslee granted last summer.

In comments she made last Nobember, Carol Evans, the tribe’s chairwoman, seemed to acknowledge the Kalispel’s displeasure with the new casino without naming them directly.

“Our studies show there is definitely room for two casinos,” Evans said last November after the groundbreaking. “We believe in healthy competition.”

But the lawsuit takes issue with how the Bureau of Indian Affairs followed through with the two-part determination that allows a tribe to build an off-reservation casino under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. One of the requirements is that the Spokane Tribe must show that it would not be detrimental to the surrounding community, which would include nearby Indian tribes.

“We support the Spokane Tribe’s goal to develop more economic opportunity, but not at the cost of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and our future generations,” Holmes said in the news release which was issued in response to questions submitted to the tribe.

The U.S. Department of Interior agreed, at the Kalispel Tribe’s request, to purchase 40 acres in Airway Heights. In 1996, the department declared the property to be part of the Kalispel Reservation, and the Kalispel tribe began efforts to obtain a gaming license.

According to the suit, Spokane Tribe officials at the time opposed Kalispel efforts to start the casino because it would adversely affect the Spokane Tribe’s Two Rivers and Chewelah casinos, both located in Stevens County.

However, the Kalispel casino plan got the approval in 1997 by then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt. Former Gov. Gary Locke approved it 1998. The suit says the casino is one of the primary revenue generators for the tribe.

“Despite the revenue from Northern Quest, the Kalispel … Tribe’s members continue to suffer from economically related social problems, including unemployment, lack of housing, and substance … abuse,” the suit states. “Members rely on the tribal government to obtain critical services.”

The Kalispel Tribe announced on Feb. 22 that it plans a $20 million expansion that will include child care facilities, a youth arcade with nonviolent games, restaurants and retail space.

Expansion plans also include construction of an upscale RV park and the transformation of Northern Quest Way into a tree-lined boulevard with public plazas and green space. The tribe expects to break ground on the expansion this spring with the goal of opening next year.

Northern Quest added the 250-room hotel seven years ago. The hotel-casino complex employs more than 2,000 people.

“It’s been 17 years, and there are still days when I wake up and I can’t believe what we’ve accomplished,” Glen Nenema, the tribe’s chairman and chief executive, told The Spokesman-Review in February.

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