By Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press
AIRWAY HEIGHTS — Some big decisions that could help decide the future of Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force Base are expected soon.
The Air Force this week is expected to decide if Fairchild will serve as the first base for the next generation of air refueling tankers.
And the Bureau of Indian Affairs is expected to decide soon whether a big Indian casino can be built just a short distance from the base, an encroachment that opponents fear could eventually prompt the Air Force to close Fairchild.
The base is the Spokane area’s single largest employer, with 5,800 workers and an economic impact of $1.3 billion per year. Supporters have been worried for two decades that it could be targeted for closure, and have been working hard to protect the land and air around the base.
“We are advocating for new missions and protecting the base from encroachment,” said Rich Hadley, director of Greater Spokane Inc., an economic development group that has taken a lead role in protecting the base.
The group’s most important fight is to ensure the base is designated a home for the new KC-46A, to be built by Boeing. The KC-46 will replace the 50-year-old KC-135s the Air Force currently uses to refuel its planes in mid-flight.
Fairchild is among four bases that are finalists for that job. The others are Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, and Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.
Hadley expects a decision to be announced as early as Wednesday.
Supporters say Fairchild has invested over $400 million in base infrastructure over the last several decades. It already possesses much of the needed capacity to accommodate the new KC-46A aerial refueling tanker, including a 14,000 foot runway and a new wing command headquarters.
Perhaps more important, it is the only primary tanker base west of the Rocky Mountains, making it closer to key Pacific hotspots, Spokane business leaders say. And Boeing is only hours away by land, in the Seattle area, if issues with the planes arise.
The military base that became Fairchild was established in 1942, when Spokane business leaders bought 1,400 acres of land on the West Plains and gave it to the War Department. Since that time, the community has been intimately concerned about the base’s future.
The conflict over the Spokane Tribe’s planned casino complex illustrates that concern.
The Spokane Tribe is proposing a casino, hotel and retail complex it says could provide up to 5,000 jobs in the future. But because the land is located off the reservation, the tribe needs the approval of both federal regulators and Gov. Jay Inslee to build the project.
Fairchild boosters have attacked the casino project as too close to the base and directly below heavily used flight paths. Many local politicians have come out against the project.
“This project creates unnecessary risks to public safety and health,” Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said.
The Air Force has been neutral on the subject of the casino proposal. The Bureau of Indian Affairs environmental impact statement also found no negative impact to the base.
“I take seriously any threat that would impact Fairchild Air Force Base’s current or future training, base operations and readiness,” said U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who represents the area in Congress and has asked the BIA to deny the Spokane Tribe’s request.
The leader of the Spokane Tribe, Rudy Peone, disputed the notion that the casino is a threat to the base.
“The Spokane Tribe has worked closely with the Air Force and Bureau of Indian Affairs to ensure any and all mitigation measures recommended for the sake of Fairchild were accommodated,” Peone said.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has the next say in the casino project. If it approves, the final decision goes to Inslee. The governor’s office has declined to say if he would approve the casino.