STEP meeting draws criticism
Airway Heights council testimony left little room for public during 40 minute meeting with visiting Indian Affairs assistant secretary
The Spokane Tribe Economic Project discussion returned to the West Plains last week, but not without controversy.
New Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn was in the Spokane region for two days to visit with numerous parties involved in the STEP project and to learn firsthand more about the project. Among those he visited included the Kalispel Tribe, Spokane Tribe and Airway Heights City Council.
“You all, as elected officials, have particular standing to give us community input,” Washburn said.
In-person public comments were cut short during a special meeting of the Airway Heights City Council, many of which included audience members opposed to the proposed mixed-use facility on Highway 2, near Fairchild Air Force Base.
Testimony from the City Council took up the nearly 40 minutes Washburn was present before needing to leave for a flight. Public comments, which will be forwarded to his office, continued after his departure.
Many in the audience were angered by the amount of time taken by the City Council when differing public opinions were present.
“We want the Spokane Tribe to be successful, but this isn’t right,” businessman Irv Zakheim said.
One of the largest concerns, he said, was the affect the project may have on Fairchild Air Force Base, particularly with an upcoming round of Base Realignment and Closure. Fairchild employs over 5,000 and pumps $500 million into the Spokane region’s economy.
“I’d like to see more responsibility on what’s right for this community,” Zakheim said.
Spokane Ciy Councilman Mike Allen said he wasn’t opposed to a second casino in the area, but didn’t want such a building placed in the flight path of Fairchild’s planes. He also criticized the way the meeting was handled, calling it poor politics.
The City Council’s comments focused on the cooperation between the city and the Kalispels since Northern Quest Resort and Casino was constructed. Like the STEP proposal, Northern Quest engages in gaming off tribal reservation land.
“There is a huge need for jobs,” Councilwoman Tonya Dashiell said.
She added the facility would include other opportunities for employment, besides gaming, like police, retail and other areas.
“There’s a lot of potential for growth in this area,” Councilman Dave Malet said. “Small businesses are hurting as it is.”
Mayor Patrick Rushing said the city has seen a direct impact in its growth from Northern Quest.
“The agreement we’ve had with the Kalispel Tribe has benefitted our city,” he said.
He spoke at length about the direct benefits seen from cooperation between the city and the tribe, particularly with the police and fire departments and their growth over the past 12 years.
“You can just tell what the growth has been in our city over the last 12 years, and that has been a direct benefit from Northern Quest and the Kalispel Tribe,” he said.
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said he supported the project before he was elected to public office.
“Competition is good,” he said, adding that even though the project was outside Spokane, it would be beneficial.
Airway Heights businessman Craig Mayhew also agreed with Allen on placement of the proposed 13-story casino and hotel building.
“It’s in the worst possible location,” he said. “The Air Force has been clear that encroachment is a concern.”
Washburn said his office would review the comments from the meeting upon his return.
“There’s no timetable for this decision,” Washburn said.
He thanked the City Council for their input, and noted that approval of the project was unanimous on the council, “But not with people we’ve spoken to,” he added.
James Eik can be reached at email@example.com.