SPOKANE — The Spokane Tribe of Indians hailed a decision by Gov. Jay Inslee that the tribe can proceed with a big casino project near Fairchild Air Force Base despite massive opposition from civic leaders in the region.
Leaders of the impoverished tribe said the $400 million project, first proposed a decade ago, will help lift members out of poverty.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” said Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe, when the decision was announced earlier this month. “We’re a good people. And now we can move forward to provide for the needs of our tribal people.”
The Spokane Tribe plans to begin construction on the casino and a retail development this summer that will provide 5,000 jobs when completed in a few years in the suburb of Airway Heights.
Many political and business leaders in the Spokane region, along with the owners of a competing casino, oppose the project. The Kalispel Tribe already operates the successful Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights and it fears losing business.
“The announcement from the governor last week was deeply disappointing because of the significant and lasting harm it will cause the Kalispel Tribe,” Kalispel spokeswoman Julie Holland said.
The Kalispels are reviewing possible legal options, Holland said Thursday.
Over the years, the Kalispels were able to enlist many Spokane political and business leaders as allies, in part by arguing that the Spokane Tribe casino might become a factor in future decisions on possibly closing the air base.
Todd Mielke, head of the regional chamber of commerce, Greater Spokane Incorporated, said Fairchild was “filling the cash registers of local businesses.”
“This is something we already have in this community,” Mielke said of Fairchild. “It’s not a speculative project that may or may not occur in the future.”
Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers also expressed concerns about Fairchild’s future if the casino is built.
The U.S. Department of the Interior issued a rare approval to the Spokane Tribe for an off-reservation casino a year ago, and Inslee had the final say on whether the project could be built.
Inslee said he met earlier this year with Air Force officials and was assured the casino project will not impact the future of the base.
“This is not a simple decision with any easy, clear-cut answer,” Inslee said in announcing his decision. “All sides have very compelling arguments in favor of and against this proposal.”
Inslee said he wanted to respect the sovereignty and economic development wishes of the Spokane Tribe, while also generating millions of tax dollars for state and local governments.
The casino project could take a decade to complete. It will include a casino, hotel, restaurants, convention facilities, bars, tribal cultural center, police and fire stations, spa and retail space.
It marks only the second time an off-reservation Indian casino has been approved in Washington. The first was Northern Quest more than 15 years ago.
Last year, four legislators from Western Washington called on Inslee to deny the tribe’s application, saying it could “open the floodgates to gaming in every community in our state, whether the local community wants it or not.” Inslee decided that was unlikely.