Interior Okays Spokane Tribe Casino; Will Washington Gov. Say ‘Yes’?

Kevin Taylor

The Spokane Tribe’s lengthy quest to construct a Class III casino and hotel on the outskirts of the city of Spokane took a major step forward Monday when it was approved by the Department of the Interior.

The project “would be in the best interest of the Tribe, and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn announced in a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

To be built in phases, the casino would feature 2,500 electronic gaming machines, 50 table games and 10 poker rooms when complete.

Inslee’s approval is the final step needed for Spokane to finally break ground on a project that began 19 years ago, when the tribe first expressed interest in acquiring trust land on the West Plains outside of Spokane. The governor has up to a year to decide, but a spokesman for Inslee told the Spokane Spokesman-Review Monday he did not know how long it might take to reach a decision.

Soon after news of the letter circulated Monday, four state lawmakers wrote their own, urging Inslee to deny the project, which has drawn sharp opposition from Spokane County commissioners and from the Kalispel Tribe. The commissioners have also said they will appeal to Inslee to deny the project.

In a written statement Tuesday afternoon, the Kalispel said a second casino “will devastate the Kalispel Tribe’s ability to provide essential services to our members.”

The Spokane’s project would be built on off-reservation trust land just two miles from the Kalispel’s Northern Quest Casino and Resort. The Kalispel are among only five tribes across the country to gain federal and state approval for off-reservation gaming.

The county commissioners and the regional chamber of commerce, Greater Spokane Incorporated, argue that the new casino could result in the closure of nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, a mainstay for the region’s economy and — with 5,000 workers — its largest employer. They also said the casino could pose a hazard to planes landing or taking off.

Washburn addressed these concerns in his four-page letter to Inslee. The Air Force never objected to the new casino project, and indeed found it would be “compatible” with the base, he wrote. The Spokane Tribe, he noted, conducted extra studies and even altered site plans to appease critics. They lowered the height of the main casino/hotel building from 140 feet to 60 even though the FAA determined the original height posed no encroachment issues for planes taking off or landing. Interior “worked with the Spokane Tribe and the United States Air Force to establish procedures to mitigate any potential encroachment and to ensure that the base will operate undisturbed,” Washburn wrote in his letter.

“We have answered every question and met every challenge,” Spokane Tribal Council chairman Rudy Peone said in a press release. “We are now in the final inning. We are excited to make our case to the governor. We are ready to move forward.”

Regarding the Kalispel, Washburn wrote, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) “... does not guarantee that tribes operating existing facilities will conduct gaming free from competition.” Washburn had flown to Spokane in December 2012 and visited both tribal reservations as well as Northern Quest.

In his letter, he noted that gaming revenue has helped the Kalispel build a “beautiful community center” and fund important government initiatives such as cultural preservation and an innovative program to reinvigorate the tribal language. “Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of this action is the potential economic impact on the Kalispel off-reservation casino,” Washburn wrote, adding that the Kalispel, with 434 enrolled members, leveraged itself financially to build Northern Quest.

But that is not reason enough, Washburn added, to deny the Spokane Tribe, which has nearly 3,000 enrolled members, a similar opportunity to rise out of poverty. The Spokane lost a salmon fishery, its main source of food and cash, when Grand Coulee Dam blocked salmon from upstream spawning sites since 1939. A uranium mining venture has left the Midnite Mine Superfund site on the reservation and logging has proven to be an unstable source of revenue, Washburn noted. “We note that it would be deeply ironic to allow the Kalispel Tribe to develop a casino within the Spokane Tribe’s aboriginal area, while denying the Spokane Tribe the opportunity to use its own aboriginal lands for the same purpose,” Washburn said.

This might be a good time for the tribes to discuss compromise, Washburn wrote, “As trustee, we can merely ask tribal nations to try to work together for the good of both.”

“We have never been opposed to sitting with our relatives at Kalispel and exploring what can be worked out between us to benefit both of our tribes and all of Eastern Washington,” Spokane chairman Peone said.

The Kalispel did not address any compromise in their written statement, ending with “We support the Spokane Tribe’s goal to develop more economic opportunity, but not at the cost of the Kalispel people and the broader community.”

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