Jamie SiJohn and Greg Abrahamson talk on the 145 acre parcel where the Spokane Tribe hopes to develop their economic project. (By Jack McNeel)

Decision on Spokane’s Proposed Casino/Economic Development Project Coming Soon

Jack McNeel
4/18/12

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Washington—The Spokane Tribe is proposing a major economic development on their ancestral homelands, off the current reservation but land acquired in trust in 2003. The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) has been completed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the 45-day period for the public to voice their comments was just extended for another month—till May 16. Afterward, all the information will be analyzed by a company working with BIA, Analytical Environmental Services, and submitted to the Department of Interior for their final decision regarding development on these Tribal Trust Lands.

Four alternatives are provided, the first of which is greatly preferred by the tribe. It would consist of a casino-resort facility, parking facility, retail and commercial space, a tribal cultural center, plus a police and fire station, all of which would be on a 145 acre site adjoining the western boundary of Airway Heights and along Highway 2.

Alternatives 2, 3, and 4 delete various portions of the overall plan with alternative 4 leaving the property in its present state.

The Spokane Tribe has been working on this proposal for at least 10 years and refers to it as the Spokane Tribe Economic Project, or STEP for short. Go to www.stepspokane.com for detailed information.

Groups have lined up on both sides of the proposal, some in support and some against with the primary point of contention being the proposed casino.

The biggest controversy pits two tribes against each other, the Spokane Tribe and the Kalispel Tribe. They call themselves "sister tribes" and many members of each tribe have relatives married to members of the other tribe. Each says it wishes the other tribe well and wishes for peace and prosperity for the other.

The controversy then takes over as the Spokane Tribe says it must have this economic development, including the casino and hotel, to restore self sufficiency and fund the various tribal programs that have suffered since the Kalispel Tribe built Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights on land just two miles from the proposed Spokane development. The Kalispels counter by saying if the Spokane plan is built the drop in funds from Northern Quest Casino will be devastating to their programs.

Vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe, Mike Spencer, commented at a public meeting on March 26 sponsored by the BIA, saying, “Within two years of Northern Quest opening, our revenue from gaming was reduced from over 30 million dollars to less than five million a year. Services we used to be able to provide are no longer possible. We’re happy for them, just asking for the same opportunity.” Their two small existing casinos are 50-60 miles away and Two Rivers Casino Resort in Davenport has now been reduced to just a five-month seasonal operation.


Tribal chairman Greg Abrahamson echoed those comments and added, “The Spokane Tribe will work with everyone to make this work.”

Curt Holmes serves on the Kalispel Tribal Council. He commented, “I think the main point we’re trying to convey is this proposal would be detrimental to the Kalispel Tribe. That’s our main concern. It would have a devastating impact on our ability to provide essential governmental services: health care, housing, child care, education, elder services.”

During the BIA meeting, Glen Nenema, chairman of the Kalispel Tribe for close to 30 years, commented on the lack of opportunity for further development on their reservation due to its very small size and compared it to the much larger Spokane reservation with many more resources available. “It’s the one location we can generate revenue,” he said.

Holmes pointed out what he considered flaws in the Draft EIS itself. “Number 1, it doesn’t mention any impacts to the Kalispell Tribe which is a major concern to us. It doesn’t address key issues or concerns regarding Fairchild Air Force Base. Third in the flaws, it fails to address impacts to the City of Spokane. I don’t think Spokane is mentioned in it. That’s a major flaw.”

Jamie SiJohn, the tribe's communications director, commented, “I’ll go on record that the Kalispel Tribe was invited to be a cooperating agency by the BIA and they declined. The City of Spokane last year was also invited to be a cooperating agency and [former] mayor, Mary Verner, put the draft EIS to each department director and asked for their input., asking ‘[D]o you see any concerns and is there any input the city needs to make in reference to this EIS?’ All Department heads said no. Therefore Spokane did not participate as a cooperating agency because they had no concerns.”

Mary Verner is no longer mayor as of January 1 and now works for the Spokane Tribe. She testified at the BIA hearing to essentially the points that SiJohn enumerated saying none of her staff expressed concerns even though given the opportunity to do so.


The same evening as the BIA meeting the Spokane City Council also held a meeting open to the public and voted 4 to 3 to oppose the Spokane Tribe’s plans to proceed with their STEP program based primarily on the fact that the development would be so close to Fairchild Air Force Base it could threaten the base’s future should budget cuts force the Air Force to eliminate air bases.

Fairchild sits across Highway 2 and about 1 1/2 miles to the west of the proposed development. This is the second major controversy in the debate. Would the development encroach enough on the air base to potentially be a problem? Fairchild AFB is Greater Spokane’s largest employer and thus a concern to the city. But is there a potential problem?

SiJohn responded, “Fairchild was a cooperating agency in the draft EIS so Fairchild’s voice is heard in the EIS.”

Chairman Abrahamson also commented. “There’s a lot of fear tactics about the encroachment issue. Another councilman, Dave Wyncoope, and myself met with the assistant Secretary in the Pentagon, Secretary Yonkers. We’ve met with the base commander and they had nothing of significance [about] the project, is what they told us. It was Wynecoope, vice chairman Mike Spencer and I that went to Colonel Gaummer. They [AFB] are a cooperating agency so if there is anything to impact that base they should put that in their comments.”

Greater Spokane Incorporated, a local chamber of commerce/economic development organization, has openly opposed the proposed development but has based its opposition largely on the encroachment issue. Another group, Citizens against Casino Expansion, likewise voices its concern about encroaching on Fairchild AFB in addition to expanding any gaming opportunity in the area.

On the supporting side are such groups as the building trades. Devon Johnson represents some 15 such unions. He commented at the BIA hearing, “It’s not whether one or the other [casino] can exist, both can. It’s plain wrong if you think both can’t survive.”

The Carpenters Union also supports the development based on the number of jobs that would be created. A spokesman described it as “the best jobs project in this area in years.”

At the BIA hearing nearly 500 people attended and about 60 turned in cards asking to speak. A majority spoke in favor of the Spokane Tribe’s proposed development. SiJohn estimated that close to 70 percent were in favor.  KHQ-TV, a local station, hosted an on-air debate between Devon Johnson and a member of Citizens against Casino Expansion. That was followed by a poll where any viewer could go to the KHQ website and vote either yes or no on whether they favored the Spokane tribe’s proposal. The results: 63 percent voted yes, 35 percent voted no and 2 percent were undecided. The tribe has also received roughly 2,000 letters in support. It  appears the majority of the local population favors the proposal.

Many local and statewide politicians have written in opposition, mostly referring to the possible encroachment problem at Fairchild AFB. Others offer support including the mayor of Airway Heights which borders the property in question. It has obviously become a controversial proposal.

The draft EIS has examined seemingly every possible scenario. That document can be viewed at www.westplainseis.com A partial list of agencies helping to prepare the document include the BIA, National Indian Gaming Commission, U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Airlines Administration, Spokane Tribe, Spokane County, Washington Department of Transportation, U.S. Corps of Engineers and Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Air Force, and the City of Airway Heights.

One section deals with the estimated effects on the nearest existing casinos: Northern Quest, Two Rivers, Chewelah, and Coeur d’Alene. It reports each of these will feel the effects of a new casino and Northern Quest, being the nearest, would likely see their revenues drop the most. It goes on to say “After approximately a 12-month period of impact, normative revenue growth for Northern Quest and Coeur d’Alene is expected to continue.” It goes on to add, “No tribal casino of the magnitude of Northern Quest or Coeur d'Alene has ever closed as a result of new competition.”

The Kalispel tribe disputes those findings. “We did some financial analysis. We took an objective look. How could we make this work?” Holmes said. “We have legitimate concerns for them [Spokanes] if this would even work out for  them. Spokane is not a gambling destination.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has remained neutral on the proposition, neither supporting nor rejecting it.

The decision now rests in the Department of Interior.

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