Fairchild Air Force Base, located roughly 10 miles southwest of Spokane, Washington (Fairchild website)

Was the Spokane Casino Helped by an Air Force Decision?

Kevin Taylor
5/31/13

For two years, one word has summed up opposition to a plan by the Spokane Tribe of Indians to build a casino and resort complex on off-reservation trust land near Fairchild Air Force Base in eastern Washington: Encroachment.

Indeed, encroachment—construction in a potential crash zone—was a factor when Fairchild was passed over by the Air Force on Wednesday[May22] to house the first new air refueling tankers to be built in 50 years. The base near Spokane, Wash., received an “F” — a 0 out of 2 score — for encroachment, multiple sources have said.

But it was the encroachment of a 300-unit trailer park located inside a designated accident potential zone (APZ), not the proposed casino some two miles away.

“I’m pleased that the Air Force itself identified the trailer park and not STEP,” said Spokane Tribe Chairman Rudy Peone about the Spokane Tribe Economic Project which includes the casino, a resort tower and retail. The tribe estimates the creation of 5,000 jobs by final buildout.

Peone, like others in Spokane, was gloomy when the news was spilled early Wednesday by the Kansas congressional delegation that the first of the new tankers would be going to McConnell Air Force Base near Wichita. Business and political leaders—including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Finance Committee—had lobbied hard for the new KC-46A tankers for Fairchild. A new mission for Fairchild would seem to make moot any fears about the casino.

The base, with 9,000 airmen, civilian workers and dependents, is the region’s largest employer and a big part of the local economy. Spokane can be a tough place to make a living, with an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent in March compared to 4.7 percent in Seattle. The per capita income in Spokane County was just under $36,000 in 2011, well under the national average of $41,000.

Patrick Jones, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University, says of Spokane “yeah we’re poor but I don’t think we’re as poor as we think we are” and “we do have a diversified economy” thanks to a large health-care sector.

Still, government jobs in Spokane, including military, are the top job sector at nearly 17 percent by share of local GDP, gross domestic product, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. The national average is 12 percent.

Could there be a silver lining for STEP in the tanker loss?

Airway Heights Mayor Patrick Rushing sees an opportunity “to dispel the encroachment issue” related to a new casino. Rushing’s small city above Spokane on the West Plains is near Fairchild and Spokane International Airport. It also provides municipal services to the Kalipsel Tribe’s Northern Quest Resort and Casino and plans to do the same for STEP.

“We have one encroachment issue with 300 mobile homes. McConnell has thousands of housing units in APZs,” Rushing said, including “two thousand stick-built homes” in just one APZ. He says this should minimize fears that STEP is a threat to Fairchild.

As Wednesday wore on, the grim prospect of tumbleweeds rolling across Fairchild runways was mollified. The military is ordering 179 KC-46As between now and 2028. The 50-year-old KC-135 tankers flown at bases like Fairchild, will be flying for years to come until they are swapped out. And, Fairchild was listed a “reasonable alternative” to house new tankers as they are built.

“This is not a loss,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Eastern Washington, said as Wednesday progressed. “It is important to remember that this [the award to McConnell] is only the first installment of 36 tankers. In the next few years, the Air Force will continue to base KC-46A refueling tankers at additional installations.”

Greater Spokane, Inc, the regional chamber of commerce, has been in the forefront of opposing STEP, and GSI President Rich Hadley still has concerns. Hadley said there is a very real risk of another round of Pentagon-ordered base closures before the second wave of new tankers are assigned bases in 2018. If Fairchild is caught without a mission it could be a target for closure.

The final comment period for the proposed Spokane Tribe casino has closed. Interior has not yet issued a Record of Decision.

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