After more than two years of debate on the merits of the Spokane Tribe of Indians' proposal to build a casino and mixed-used development at the western edge of Airway Heights, it's time for the federal government to make a recommendation and put the issue in Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee's hands.
Should the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior approve the project, Inslee should reject the proposal once he receives it so that the Spokane-area business community can focus on championing good ideas, rather than spending its time fighting ones that are potentially detrimental.
It was two years ago—nearly to the day—that the Journal first took a stance on this issue, calling on the federal government to turn down the tribe's request to offer off-reservation gaming at its proposed development, called the Spokane Tribe Economic Project. Amidst all of the studies that have been released, all the press conferences that have been held, and all of the time that has gone by, our stance remains the same—for many of the same reasons.
The debate has focused largely on whether the proposed casino and adjoining development would compromise operations at Fairchild Air Force Base, which is one of the region's largest employers and is located near the casino site.
A draft environmental impact statement issued by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs says the proposed casino is compatible with land-use policies in the vicinity of Fairchild.
Citizens Against Casino Expansion, a group headed by West Plains businessman Irv Zakheim, counters that statement by pointing to the Joint Land Use Study developed by Spokane County, cities within the county, and representatives of the Air Force. That plan recommends against allowing sensitive land uses near Fairchild, including churches, hospitals, and public-assembly facilities. A casino, the group contends, clearly falls in that category and thereby isn't compatible. We agree.
Last month, the tribe issued a study it commissioned that said Fairchild and a casino could be compatible neighbors. Called the Madison Report and conducted by a Washington, D.C., consultant, the study contends that STEP would have no negative impact on existing or future operations at Fairchild.
In a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, however, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said, "Regardless of stated mitigation measures, I have concerns that the proposed project would be viewed as an encroachment."
Gaming on off-reservation tribal land is largely prohibited by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, and the federal government has made few exceptions to that rule. Such exceptions shouldn't be made easily regardless of tribe or location, but in this case, the location is of particular concern.
Nobody knows what decisions the Air Force will make in the future. In an era of continued military reduction and strained defense budgets, it's a safe bet they'll be looking at further base closures or consolidations. Fairchild is currently positioned to be a prime candidate to absorb additional missions and expand, and any expansion of employment and capital investment benefit the community as a whole. It would be a travesty if that were to change because the BIA and a D.C. consultant were wrong in their assessments of a potential casino's impact.
With the recent decision to make McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, rather than Fairchild, the main operating base for the new KC-46A tankers that the Air Force will be rolling out in coming years, the community's defense against Fairchild closure becomes even more important.
We, as a business community, need our public officials and elected leaders to make some decisions on this issue so we can move forward. We've heard enough discourse. We need them to take action.