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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northern Quest prepares to open River Tower addition

It’s the kind of project where the designing architect drives by, stares for a long minute and quietly says to himself: I helped build that.

Kalispel Tribe officials have unveiled the River Tower addition of 192 luxury hotel rooms to Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights.

With a total 442 rooms once the River Tower opens to the public May 1, the venue has grown to become the largest casino resort in Washington state, tribal officials say.

“We just want to keep evolving,” said Phil Haugen, CEO of the Kalispel Tribe Economic Authority. “We are proud of being something that attracts people to this community.”

Rather than building a rectangle filled with rooms, Dan Snook, the project designer and architect with Integrus Architecture, of Spokane, said the team met with Haugen to talk about connections and themes important to the tribe that the designers could try to replicate.

The team, which included Lydig Construction, Coffman Engineering, Parametrix and MW Engineers, all of Spokane, then tried to find a way to incorporate those ideas into a working hotel. The special features and unorthodox building techniques resulted in an effort that produced a source of pride, he said.

“We are telling the tribal story in a way that was authentic to them,” Snook said.

For instance, the exterior of the building incorporates wood siding and raised panels that both mimic the materials used in a fish weir – a structure of sticks designed to capture salmon – and tule mats, which are woven stalks cut from bulrush that grow in the swampy areas along the Pend Oreille River.

“The fish weir was a hospitable place where people would come and tell their stories,” Snook said. “It was a gathering place for the tribes.”

A skywalk and a series of orange piers that are located in various locations around the tower were made to replicate the wooden piers near the bridge at Usk that crosses the Pend Oreille River onto the 4,500-acre Kalispel Reservation.

“I grew up in Spokane but I spent a lot of my time on the reservation,” Haugen said. “That bridge, when you hit that Usk bridge, you do feel like you are going home. That’s our property.”


The River Tower’s 192 rooms are on six floors. Visitors are immediately greeted by large windows, spanning ceiling to floor, at the end of every hallway and inside every room.

Even the median of the grand plaza, which separates incoming and outgoing traffic has meaning. It was built in the shape of a sturgeon, which was an important resource for the river-paddling Kalispels, said Julie Holland, the director of marketing for the tribe.

Nearly every space reflects a theme. The pattern of the hallway carpets features stylized writings in the Salish language. Those flowing words are bordered by a running landscape of a distant mountain range.

In nearly every room hangs artwork handcrafted by tribal members. The art includes a framed woven tule mat. Over the top of the tules is painted a line to signify the flow of the Pend Oreille River at Usk.

“Every suite not only has a room number but has been named after a tree that is native to Kalispel lands,” said tribal member Apryl Hilborn, who is the director of rooms. “We are proud of our heritage and were intentional about the ways we wanted to share it with our guests.”

Holland, the marketing director, said all of the colors in the rooms – grays, browns and greens – were picked because they match the earth tones of the landscape around their ancestral home.

In the River Tower lobby, designers added an “Arktura” wall made with perforated LED backlit panels that show two Kalispel tribal members paddling in a sturgeon-nosed canoe. The image was copied from a historical photo from the reservation.

Most of the king suites, except for 10 of the most spacious rooms, will go for about $369. And the 75 double-queen rooms will be marketed at $179 night. All of the suites have an outside balcony.

The tower, which contains about 130,000 square feet, also has a fitness center on the second floor.

Even while guests toured the rooms during a grand-opening event Thursday night, crews continued to finish painting and were adding the odd shelf and furniture items in some of the rooms.

Snook, the architect, said crews continue to work on the new parking lot on the west side of the towers, landscaping and a few other items. Tribal officials declined to say how much the overall project cost.

Snook said the structural engineers, contractors and tribal officials all had several meetings about how to create their vision.

“We all had to decide, ‘How does this work. And how does this work in the budget,’ ” Snook said. “We started designing this in the fall of 2020. We were able to deliver the project on time and on budget.

“You don’t get this,” Snook said as he looked and gestured with his hand, “at this kind of pace without that coordination.”

Haugen, who became general manager of the resort and casino when it opened in 2000, said the River Tower continues the evolution of the site from a gaming room only.

“The original casino was 50,000 square feet. We thought, ‘This is it. We’ve made it,’ ” Haugen said. “Now we have more than 700 acres, the music venue, the RV park and other activities that are not dependent on gaming.

“I just never thought we’d have this kind of role in the community.”

The impact

As a result of its meteoric growth in the past 23 years, Northern Quest has had an outsized impact on the rest of the region, said Grant Forsyth, chief economist for Avista Corp.

“If you look at the Kalispel casino, it’s become the anchor tenant for the West Plains and their development,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the West Plains and the level of development you’ve seen out there without the development of the casino.”

And that progression, which includes a massive parking garage in 2008, the 4,000-seat outdoor concert venue in 2011 and the purchase of the former Spokane Country Club in 2015, has turned the resort into a destination, he said.

“If you look across the U.S., not all tribal casinos are successful,” Forsyth said. “But the Kalispels have been very careful and very deliberate in the way they have expanded the casino. It’s more an entertainment place than just a casino.”

Forsyth said many of the same things are going on two miles away where the Spokane Tribe, which in 2021 opened the $30 million Spokane Tribe Casino.

“The Kalispels started this process,” Forsyth said. “My sense is, that’s the direction the Spokane Tribe is going, too. From what I’ve read from their long-term plans, they are hoping for something more than just a casino.”

Patrick Jones, executive director of Eastern Washington University’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis, said the key for boosting the local economy is when a place like Northern Quest attracts visitors from outside the region to spend money.

What Spokane County residents “spend at the casino is not new money into the local economy,” Jones said. “On the other hand, the dollars that Northern Quest receives from visitors … is a boost to our local economy because those are new dollars.

“How they dispose, or allocate, their profits is another win for the community if it’s kept local.”

As a result of its success, the Northern Quest Resort & Casino now employs about 1,400 people and another 500 at tribal-owned properties, including the Kalispel Casino that opened in 2019 in Cusick. That puts them among the top employers in Spokane County.

Haugen, a 60-year-old tribal member, said the Kalispel leaders will continue to plan several moves ahead with each expansion. And, they will also continue to engage in everything from giving to large foundations down to buying uniforms for area high school teams.

“In 1998, we had 30 employees and were getting ready to declare bankruptcy,” Haugen said. “Before my parents passed away, they told me how proud they were of me and what we’ve accomplished.”