Spokane Tribe Moves Forward In Plans For Resort Casino, Amidst Opposition

Mar 9, 2012

SPOKANE -- The Spokane Tribe of Indians just received a list of federal guidelines for their proposed casino project in Airway Heights. Along with the document came a new round of opposition. Paige Browning has more.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs just released an Environmental Impact Study, or EIS, for the resort casino proposal. The draft statement shows mostly positive results for the Spokane Tribe Economic Project, STEP for short, though it hasn’t been a quiet process.

Zakheim: "Wait a second, there is a problem out here. I don’t believe that casinos add to an economic development.”

That’s Irv Zakheim who organized a group in opposition to STEP, called citizens against casino expansion. He’s a public voice speaking out, but the EIS provides a federal viewpoint.

The EIS provides four options for the Tribe. Number one is to move forward as planned.

Alternative two would shrink the amount of casino games from the original 2,500 to 1,500. Three proposes not developing a casino at all, and instead using the space for a tribal cultural center, police and fire station, and a commercial building. The fourth option is to develop nothing.

The EIS states option one would bring almost $250 million in annual revenue. Tribal Council Vice Chair Mike Spencer says their current two casinos aren’t making much profit anymore.

Spencer: “Two years after the Kalispell Casino opened up in Airway Heights Two Rivers went from making approximately $8-$10 million dollars a year, to losing a million plus dollars per year. We had to turn it into a seasonal operation.”

He says 54 percent of the tribe's adults are unemployed.

With STEP, the EIS says there are no significant adverse affects on resources like groundwater, wildlife, air quality, and noise. But, for the tribe to develop at all they would need to complete mitigation in more than 30 areas. Zakheim says even this long list doesn’t cover what he sees as the biggest problems.

Zakheim: “Well Fairchild is the number one issue without a doubt. We have to protect that resource.”

Protecting Fairchild Air Force Base is a common theme in opposition to STEP. The Base is reviewed every few years, and County commissioner Todd Meilke works with their staff to keep it up to par.

Meilke: “With regard to the flight paths as well as the training paths we don’t want to locate anything that draws large crowds. You don’t want large sports complexes, movie theaters, arenas, and that’s part of the big debate over the new proposed tribal casino.”

And though many might argue that Northern Quest Casino is near the base as well…

Meilke: “It’s further away, it’s not in the flight patterns, the training flight patterns of Fairchild.”

Not only does the Spokane Tribe have the EIS to think about, but Fairchild will always be a looming speed-bump in their project. The next step is a public comment period going on now until April 15th. The public also has an opportunity to weigh in on the proposed development March 26th at Sunset Elementary School.

Copyright 2012 Spokane Public Radio