AIRWAY HEIGHTS — A big casino that the Spokane Tribe of Indians is proposing has cleared a major regulatory hurdle, but the project is drawing bitter opposition from a rival tribe and from some area business and political leaders.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs recently issued a draft environmental impact statement that allows the Spokane Tribe’s proposal to continue moving forward. The proposal is opposed by the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, who fear their nearby Northern Quest Casino will lose business to the new competitor.
Area politicians and business leaders also worry about the new casino’s impact on nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, and on the Spokane community.
“We don’t want to become Spo-Vegas,” said Irv Zakheim, a business leader who co-founded Citizens Against Casino Expansion. “It would expand gambling and the problems that come with it, threaten Fairchild Air Force Base, harm our local economy.”
The draft environmental impact statement is now the subject of a 45-day public comment period and what is likely to be a contentious public hearing on March 26.
The issue goes back more than a decade, when the Kalispel Tribe won rare federal approval to build an off-reservation casino because its tiny reservation in northeastern Washington was unsuited to such a big project.
The glitzy Northern Quest, located in this suburb west of Spokane, has been a huge moneymaker for the tiny tribe.
The Spokane Tribe, which claims the Spokane area as an ancestral homeland, wants to build its own resort complex just a few miles from the Northern Quest.
But the Spokanes also need special permission for the off-reservation casino, and the environmental statement is a first step in that complicated process.
Spokane Tribe chairman Greg Abrahamson said he believes a second casino in the area will build business for both tribes.
A key finding of the environmental review is that the proposed casino will not impact Fairchild Air Force Base, one of Eastern Washington’s largest employers.
Some Spokane business leaders are not so sure. They worry that a crowded casino under the flight line of the air tanker base might prompt the military to close Fairchild in the future.
“We remain committed to protecting Fairchild Air Force Base from encroachment,” said Rich Hadley of Greater Spokane Inc., the region’s economic development agency, which opposes the Spokane Tribe’s project.
The base has some 5,700 employees and is worth $793 million a year to the Spokane economy, the business group said. The Spokane Tribe is proposing to spend $400 million for a casino and resort complex which they contend will provide 2,800 jobs when fully completed. Opponents dispute the employment projections.
Abrahamson said the Spokane tribe has worked closely with military officials in Washington, D.C., to make sure their proposal does not hurt the base. And military officials have not publicly stated any concerns about the proposed casino.
The tribe’s project includes 98,000 square feet of gambling area with 2,500 slot machines, a 300-room hotel, several restaurants, parking garage, retail space, a tribal cultural center and tribal police and fire station.
Opponents take issue with the environmental review.
“It doesn’t speak to how this casino would threaten the character of our community and it doesn’t examine the full costs that the Spokane Tribe could transfer to local taxpayers,” Zakheim said.
Indian gambling is a major business in Washington. A recent study, Casino City’s Indian Gaming Industry Report, found that Washington’s 32 tribal casinos ranked fifth in gaming revenue in 2010 with $2.03 billion, up 7.5 percent from the year before. The state was third in the number of gaming machines at tribal casinos, with 27,358, behind only California and Oklahoma.
Critics contend approving an off-reservation casino strictly on the grounds of generating higher revenues for a tribe could lead to an explosion of Indian gambling sites near large cities.
The Obama administration in 2009 launched a review of federal rules that dramatically limited off-reservation gambling. Only five off-reservation casinos, including the Northern Quest, have been approved in more than 20 years.
Few tribes have benefited from gaming as much as the Kalispels, a band with 416 members and a reservation that is just 8 miles long and 1 mile wide. The reservation sits mostly on a floodplain near Usk, 50 miles north of Spokane.
With few options for generating money, the Kalispels in the early 1990s bought land in Airway Heights and launched a seven-year effort to get it designated as part of their reservation to allow gambling. The effort required the approval of both the federal government and former Washington Gov. Gary Locke.
The Northern Quest Casino, near Spokane’s airport, opened in 2000 and has been continually expanded since.
It is the Kalispel’s only casino, but the revenues allow the tribe to provide clean drinking water, medical and dental care, a wellness center, fire and ambulance service, higher education scholarships and jobs in various fields for every member who wants one. The casino employs about 2,000 people.
By contrast, gambling has not been so good to the Spokane Tribe, which has 2,655 members and a much larger reservation about 30 miles northwest of Spokane. The Spokanes at one time operated five modest rural casinos on their reservation, but only two are left.
The opening of the Kalispel casino cut revenues at the Spokane Tribe’s venues by 80 percent, Abrahamson said. The revenue drop forced the Spokanes to reduce their social programs, aid to elders and youth and education programs and unemployment among the Spokanes is around 50 percent, he said.