A Winning Hand?

by Mick Lloyd-Owen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & eemingly vindicated after 15 years of legal wrangling with the state of Washington and the federal government, the Spokane Tribe of Indians has announced that it has finally negotiated a gaming compact with the state. When ratified, according to a statement from tribal council member Gerald Nicodemus, the new compact will resolve the tangled and protracted dispute that has enshrouded the tribe's gambling activities, and will provide a clear atmosphere in which to plan future operations.

"It's a new day for the tribe," says Nicodemus.

Prominent among future plans is the tribe's development of a 145-acre plot, adjacent to the city of Airway Heights, into a mixed-use complex with a casino and hotel as the centerpiece. In addition to a gaming floor of 40,000 to 60,000 square feet, the new facility will host commercial and retail spaces, a convention center, and an entertainment facility for concerts and shows, the tribe anticipates. Tribal spokesmen declined to comment on how much the complex could cost, saying that all plans are, at this juncture, highly tentative.

The new compact does not guarantee the proposed development will be built. The U.S. Department of the Interior must first conduct an environmental impact analysis, and if it approves, the governor must concur. The process is likely to be lengthy, according to the tribe's legal counsel, Scott Crowell, but also transparent, during which the local community will be consulted for input.

The compact does, however, allow the tribe to immediately improve and expand its casinos on tribal property in Chewelah, Washington, and its Two Rivers facility, where the Spokane River meets the Columbia.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & achine gaming has generated friction between the tribe and the state since the late 1980s, when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. "Indian gaming is a business like any other business," says Scott Wheat, legal counsel for the Spokane Tribe, "and business depends on good will toward patrons. Patrons like machines, and that's primarily where the tribes are coming from."

Gambling machines were universally outlawed in Washington when the tribe first solicited a compact in 1988. The Spokane Tribe maintained that the state was obligated to negotiate a compact under federal provisions, but Washington challenged the constitutionality of those provisions.

The tribe opened the Two Rivers facility in 1994, offering machine gaming without the approval of the state. While a federal court determined that the tribe shouldn't offer machine gaming without a compact, a federal appeals court stopped that order from being enforced until the legal questions were answered.

"A myth has been perpetuated in Spokane that we're operating illegally," Wheat says. "We take sharp issue with that. The Spokane Tribe has been operating under the protection of a federal court order throughout this 15-year process. The courts have determined that the tribe has followed, to the letter, every requirement of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act."

Negotiations between the state and tribe have, for years, gone nowhere. But tribal officials say Gov. Chris Gregoire has been more open to a compact, driving the two sides to an agreement. The compact will limit the tribe to five gambling establishments, and caps the number of gaming devices at an eventual 4,700 -- attained incrementally over the course of several years. As with compacts secured by other tribes, it calls for a percentage of gaming revenue to be directed toward community impact mitigation, non-tribal charitable organizations and non-gaming tribes.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he site of the projected development is adjacent to the western boundary of the City of Airway Heights, and is designated by the county as an urban growth area that, according to Wheat, "anticipates eventual annexation by the city." Tribal leaders say their discussions with city leadership have yielded a positive response.

The tribe claims that the new facility will boost the city's economy by creating about 2,000 jobs. Leaders also say it will provide the tribe a much-needed source of revenue with which they can address health care and education issues for the tribe's 2,500 members.

"Tribal governments are governments," says Crowell. "They have the same responsibilities that state and local governments have to provide critical services, but we don't have the same income that the state and local governments have through property tax."

"It's very difficult for tribes to generate revenue through more conventional means," Wheat adds, "such as taxation when dealing with land you can't tax, and a constituency with income that is half of average." Thus, he says, Indian gaming is fundamentally different from non-Indian gaming, which profits corporate shareholders.

The Washington State Gambling Commission is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the compact on February 8, after which the proposal will be submitted to the governor for her approval and then to the U.S. Department of the Interior.