Gov. Jay Inslee gave final approval on Wednesday to a $400 million gaming and retail development proposed by the Spokane Tribe that critics have argued could adversely affect Fairchild Air Force Base and severely undercut a nearby casino.
Since 2006 the tribe has been seeking approval for the Spokane Tribe Economic Project, a mixed-use development on 145 acres in the West Plains of Spokane County, land the federal government has set aside in 2001 to benefit the Spokane Tribe
economically. The proposed project will include a casino, a tribal cultural center, a resort hotel and other amenities. The tribe has stressed that the project would create thousands of jobs and pump millions into the local economy.
“All sides have very compelling arguments in favor of and against this proposal,” said Inslee in a statement. “After much consideration, I decided that allowing the Spokane Tribe to develop on its federally recognized land was both fair and appropriate under the federal legal requirements.”
Since the tribe floated the idea, it’s steadily drawn opponents, such as downtown business interests and much of the region’s political class
including U.S. Rep Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Spokane) and the Spokane County Board of Commissioners.
Opponents have voiced concerns that the development’s proximity to Fairchild Air Force Base could result in a catastrophic plane crash or cause the closure of the base, a significant source of jobs and economic activity for the region.
A statement from the county commissioners issued in response to the decision says that although the Air Force is “neutral,” its officials have expressed to Inslee that “any development located near an airfield carries concerns of heightened risk and potential encroachment issues.” The governor, according to the statement, has effectively “gambled on Fairchild's future.”
“[T]he County Commissioners fail to see how the Governor could have approved the STEP, which would be located immediately beneath the closed traffic pattern pilots fly in training operations at Fairchild Air Force Base,” reads the statement. “Fairchild is worth an estimated $1 billion annually to Washington State and is currently competing to be selected as Main Operating Base 4 for the new KC-46A tankers.”
However, a letter sent from Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Miranda Ballentine to Inslee in February state that “any issues that may have been of concern were addressed via the Tribe’s proposed mitigations.” According to the letter, the casino’s location is “well outside of the existing noise zones and Potential Accident Zones….”
The Kalispel Tribe has also opposed the project
over concerns that a second casino in Airway Heights would compete too closely with its Northern Quest Resort & Casino, the last-off reservation casino to be approved in the state.
STEP has its supporters, too. Airway Heights, enticed by the potential economic activity, is on board. And the Spokane City Council, after a shift in its political composition, dropped its previous opposition in 2014
and currently supports the project.
Council President Ben Stuckart, in a statement emailed to the Inlander
, highlighted how the Spokane Tribe’s reservation was recently designated as a Promise Zone
by the Obama administration, which will bring more federal support for economic development, educational, housing and other initiatives.
“I can’t wait to see what the Spokane Tribe will build here,” said Stuckart. “I know it will leave a lasting legacy, and I look forward to working with the Spokane Tribe to make this city the place it was meant to be.”
Under federal law, the project needed to be signed off on by both the governor and the U.S. Department of Interior. In June of last year, the department determined that the casino would benefit the tribe and that the project wouldn’t pose any downsides to the surrounding community.
Inslee gave his approval to the project after “a year of extensive legal review and discussions with multiple tribal governments, state and local authorities, federal officials, U.S. Air Force leaders and business and community groups,” according to a statement from his office.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell indicating his support, Inslee noted that after meetings and correspondence with the Air Force’s top brass he determined that “the record establishes that STEP will not interfere with Fairchild’s current operations, or negatively impact future Air Force citing decisions.”
The letter also recognized concerns from the Kalispel Tribe that the new casino has the potential to create “substantial economic competition.” But the letter notes that the land where the Spokanes
are seeking to build STEP was placed into trust by the federal government in 2001 for the purpose of providing economic development for the tribe. The Kalispel Tribe already has a casino on this land, and Inslee wrote that it would be ironic to deny the Spokane Tribe the same opportunity.
“I do not believe, however, that this potential competition alone should permanently bar the Spokane from developing on trust land within the Spokane Tribe’s federally recognized historical and aboriginal area,” Inslee wrote.
Here is the correspondence between Inslee and the Air Force.
Ltr Ballentine to Gov Inslee Re Spokane Casino Development