AIRWAY HEIGHTS Wash. - Its big, it's bold, and it's controversial. The Spokane Tribe has proposed a new casino adjacent to Airway Heights, just miles from Northern Quest Casino. The Spokane Tribe Economic Project (STEP) is a vision ten years in the making and it comes with both strong support and bitter opposition.
Thursday, KHQ tackled both sides of the proposed casino development in a special edition of KHQ Local News at 6.
The Spokane tribe wants to turn 145-acres of land near Fairchild Air Force Base - which they describe as ancestral homeland - into a casino, hotel, and retail area and they're investing $400 million dollars to make that vision come to life. In addition to the casino and shops, the plans call for an indoor water park, spa, convention and conference space, tribal cultural center, and a new police and fire station.
The Spokane Tribe sees STEP as an opportunity to become self sufficient by creating new jobs as well as curtail skyrocketing unemployment rates which they said impact more than 50 percent of the tribal population. Once the retail development and casino operations begin, Spokane Tribe officials said STEP will create over 2,000 full time positions along with hundreds of jobs created from indirect effects. Altogether, STEP officials said the project has the ability to create over 3,800 jobs.
Building a casino requires that the tribe go through many steps including working with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and completing a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The independent statement analyzes all aspects of potential effects of the project on nearby Fairchild Air Force Base, traffic, noise, land-use compatibility, and social issues.
Spokane Tribal Chairman Gregory Abrahamson said, "From the very beginning of this process, the Tribe has been committed to an open and transparent process with the surrounding community. We have worked collaboratively with elected officials, state and federal agencies and local citizens."
In addition, The Spokane Tribe has always maintained that a new casino would not impact operations at Fairchild Air Force Base, one of Eastern Washington's largest employers.
"The Spokane Tribe has worked closely and cooperatively with Fairchild Air Force Base and we have met with senior Air Force command at the Pentagon in Washington D.C," Abrahamson added.
In a recent development, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently issued the DEIS that allows the Spokane Tribe's proposal to continue moving forward. A key finding of the environmental review is that the proposed casino will not impact the base. There are, however, several people who disagree.
Representatives with Greater Spokane Incorporated (GSI), believe STEP could dramatically jeopardize the future of Fairchild Air Force Base, which they said employs 5,7000 people. As an economic development organization, GSI believes it is their first job to protect the jobs Spokane already has.
Greg Bever, Chair of Forward Fairchild said "This is the worst possible site for this type of development. It's encroachment at its very worst and it directly impacts the current flying mission."
According to GSI's website, "The proposed development falls within Military Influence Area (MIA) 3/4 of the Joint Land Us Study (JLUS), which precludes sensitive uses such as hotels, child care centers, hospitals, public assembly facilities, and more. Based on these criteria, the project should not be approved."
In addition, GSI's website stated that the base sees approximately 2,000 flights per week, and current flight patterns fly directly above the proposed development site. This presents noise and safety issues with planes flying approximately 500 feet above the development site. Altering flight patterns to accommodate developments outside the base affects the amount and times of flights, the amount of fuel used, and the expense to fly those training missions.
Opponents believe encroachment is especially problematic in light of the fact that the Department of Defense (DoD) announced they were reducing 30 to 35 percent of bases in the next five years. Many fear, encroachment from a new casino could be seen as a strike against Fairchild in the reduction process. Another group against STEP is the Citizens Against the Casino Expansion.
According to their website, the DEIS "Misrepresents the real threats this casino poses to our community, our state, and Fairchild Air Force Base....Tell the BIA we don't want this casino and the harm it will cause our community. It would expand gambling and the problems that come with it, threaten Fairchild Air Force Base, harm our local economy, set a precedent for other Tribes to build off-reservation casinos, and leave local taxpayers holding the bag."
Finally, the proposal is also opposed by the Kalispel Tribe, which owns Northern Quest Casino. The Kalispel officials believe a new casino would cut into their business profits.
Afterwards, all of the comments and information collected on the DEIS during the public comment period goes back to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for consideration and preparation of a Final EIS. The Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, on behalf of the Secretary of Interior will prepare the final decision which will be documented in a Record of Decision (ROD).
If they give the stamp of approval, then the document is forwarded to Governor Chris Gregoire to make her decision. If she's in favor of the plan, the Spokane Tribe can begin construction.
A public hearing for the Draft EIS is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on Monday, March 26, 2012, at Sunset Elementary School in Airway Heights.
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