Samish Indian Nation buys 14 acres on Highway 20

Richard Walker, Today correspondent
12/29/08

ANACORTES, Wash. – The Samish Indian Nation has acquired 14 acres of prime commercial real estate on Highway 20, boosting its profile in the region and creating new economic development opportunities.

Samish leaders say they are exploring the economic development potential of the land. It is located a half-mile from Similk Beach Golf Course, an 18-hole public course with views of Fidalgo and Similk bays; 2.5 miles from the Swinomish Northern Lights Casino; and 2.5 miles from Samish’s Fidalgo Bay Resort.

“One of the things we’ve done is look at what economic development works in Indian country, what other tribes are doing well. Gaming is a big one,” Samish Chairman Tom Wooten said.

Other options include fuel, lodging and retail. He said Samish expects to narrow its plans for the site in February or March.

The site was purchased for $8.6 million, using money from Samish’s current fund and gaming machine leases, Wooten said. Samish doesn’t have a casino, but is allocated a number of machines in a compact with the state and leases those allocations to other casinos.

The purchase, which reportedly closed Oct. 13, was a timely morale booster; a month earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled against Samish in its 34-year effort to win treaty fishing rights. Samish is appealing before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ironically, Samish is considered a “landless tribe” because it does not have a reservation and a federal court decision in 1974 reaffirmed treaty fishing rights but only for tribal nations on reservations.

But since 1996, Samish has assembled a real estate portfolio in its ancestral homeland that has helped strengthen Samish identity, create environmental stewardship opportunities and contribute to the economy of the area.

In fall, Samish took ownership of 43 acres on Thomas Creek, a tributary of the Samish River, in Sedro-Woolley. The land, deeded to Samish in a will, is being used as a nursery for native plants for stream restoration. In the fall, Samish also acquired by donation 3.5 acres of oyster beds on Lopez Island.

Samish also owns 78 acres on Fidalgo Island’s Campbell Lake; a block on Commercial Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Anacortes; and Fidalgo Bay Resort on Weaverling Spit.

It was also a culturally significant year for Samish.

In July, Fidalgo Bay Resort was a stop on the Intertribal Canoe Journey, an annual gathering that keeps alive the tradition of canoe travel upon the ancestral waters. Several Northwest Coast Native canoe families stayed here en route to the Cowichan First Nation in Duncan, B.C., the final destination on the journey.

Samish also raised a welcome pole at Fidalgo Bay Resort; William Bailey, the Samish artist who carved the pole, said it is believed to be the first pole on Weaverling Spit in about 200 years.

Other Samish public art: House posts at its offices facing Commercial Avenue; and a 24-foot carved likeness of Ko-kwal-al-woot, a Samish woman who married a sea being to guarantee salmon runs for her people. The statue is located in Deception Pass State Park.

In addition, Samish plans to open a Native art gallery in downtown Anacortes in the first quarter of 2009.

Wooten appreciates Samish’s progress which has led to the purchase of prime development land on a major highway.

In 1997, one year after the U.S. government re-established a government-to-government relationship with the Samish Indian Nation, “we had a budget of $367,000 from BIA and were operating out of a rented building with one employee. Eleven years later, we have 40 employees and $19 million in assets. It’s just amazing,” Wooten said.

General Manager Leslie Eastwood added, “Sometimes, I can’t almost believe it. A decade ago, we were just dreaming of this. It says a lot about our leaders and their vision.” Samish leaders began long-term strategic planning in 1997.

The Highway 20 site is about 90 miles from the nearest venue in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. The state’s Department of Community Trade and Economic Development expects communities within 150 miles of Vancouver, B.C., will be affected by people heading to and from the games.

But Wooten and Eastwood don’t expect the site to be developed in time for the games. The first step is to have the property placed in trust, a process that can take several years. With the land in trust, the title to the property would be held by the United States on Samish’s behalf and the land would be taken off the tax rolls, just like local, county, state and federally-owned land.

Samish would likely negotiate an agreement with the City of Anacortes for the provision of public safety and other services to the site; it has similar agreements covering other Samish-owned land.

In addition, Wooten told the Anacortes American newspaper that Samish will want to develop the site in a way that benefits Samish and Anacortes.

“We’re a shareholder in the city. We intend to work with the city toward common goals,” he told the newspaper.

- Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.

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