Massive turnout for both sides of STEP project discussion
Hundreds of people in support and opposition for the proposed Spokane Tribe Economic Project gathered at Sunset Elementary in Airway Heights Monday, March 26 to voice their opinion to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Around 60 members of the public from all walks of life commented on the development. Topics brought up throughout the night included the dwindling income from the Spokane Tribe’s other casinos, possible encroachment on Fairchild Air Force Base, job creation and some social difficulties within the Spokane Tribe.
A 45-day public comment period ended April 16. The STEP project is located on a 145-acre plot, north of Highway 2 and west of Craig Road. Airway Heights is currently in the process of annexing the land.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement contains four alternative options, which address potential impacts of construction on the property. A full casino and hotel plan, promoted by the tribe, is the first option.
The second alternative considers a project without a hotel, but still with a casino, and the third alternative looked at a mixed-use facility project. Options for the third alternative’s use included an arcade, bowling alley and 300-room hotel. A fourth alternative addressed what would happen if no action was taken, leaving the land as it currently sits.
The Spokane Tribe currently experiences 56 percent unemployment, tribal Chairman Greg Abrahamson said. Tribal Council vice-chairman Michael Spencer said annual revenues at Two Rivers Casino and Resort plummeted from $30 million to under $5 million, following the construction and growth of the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights.
As a result, the tribe has closed the resort for much of the week, excepting Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The shrinking revenues limit their ability to offer assistance to many of its members. Affordable medical care, educational scholarships and employment opportunities have fallen by the wayside, Spencer said.
Several comments through the night came from those opposed to the project, who said it encroaches on Fairchild, the region’s largest employer. Fred Zitterkopf, from Greater Spokane Incorporated’s Forward Fairchild, said the base’s flight pattern is directly in line with the proposed 14-story hotel.
“The flying mission depends on available land for training,” he said. “Airway Heights’ prison and the other casino have forced the Air Force to withdraw from historical flight patterns on the eastern edge of the city. Likewise, Sunset school is also affected.”
GSI president and CEO Rich Hadley said the draft EIS doesn’t acknowledge Spokane County’s Joint Land Use Study proposal, which seeks to protect Fairchild from surrounding incompatible land uses.
“If Hilton Hotels or our own Davenport Hotel decided to put a project in this location we would still be opposed to it,” he said.
Margo Hill, a tribal member, said such rhetoric was offensive to military veterans in the tribe. Others said the opposition from business leaders was disingenuous at best.
Ben Cabildo said he hadn’t ever seen a selective opposition quite like the one against the STEP project.
“When Walmart and other big stores came to town and displaced a lot of small businesses in this area, I didn’t hear any opposition from them,” he said. “I also didn’t hear any opposition from them when a lot of businesses left the area and went to Texas, Mexico and other parts of the world.”
A later comment from former Spokane City Council President Joe Shogun questioned GSI’s statements regarding encroachment.
“Apparently GSI knows more about encroachment than the Air Force does,” he said. “If this base is going to survive, it’s because it’s in a strategic location.”
Some representatives from the Kalispel Tribe said they weren’t opposed to the project because it was a neighboring tribe. Rather, the Spokanes and Kalispels share a common ancestry, with many Spokane members employed at Northern Quest Casino. Instead, the Kalispels are concerned about the impact it would have on their tribe’s ability to provide services to its members.
Curt Holmes, a member of the Kalispel Business Council, said the EIS doesn’t consider possible impacts to the Kalispels, should the STEP project go through. With their reservation near Usk, Wash. set on a flood plain and hillside, he said the tribe is unable to develop economic projects for themselves. In 1971, the tribe had one working telephone, and due to Northern Quest revenues, have been able to provide potable water only for the last four years.
Glen Nenema, Kalispel Business Council chairman, said the tribe has seen its fair share of struggles.
“We too know what it’s like to struggle,” he said. “I want them to achieve their goal without hurting mine.”
One Spokane Tribe member, Dale Miller, would have the opportunity for a full-time job if the project moved forward. As of Monday night, Miller had five days left on his construction job, after his contractor was unable to extend his service time.
Mike Senske said the Spokane Tribe should seek to develop its existing properties to better attract a customer base. He cited the Coeur d’Alene casino as an example, several miles away from any major city.
The benefits Fairchild offers to veterans were what brought Lois Smith to comment. She said many depend on the base for its medical care, gym facilities and other benefits.
“I’m concerned that saving (the tribe’s) future might take away mine,” she said.
BIA deputy regional director of Indian Services Scott Akin said substantive comments will be taken into consideration for the final Environmental Impact Statement for the project. Although Monday’s event was the sole public hearing on the project, comments can be made online at westplainseis.com.
James Eik can be reached at email@example.com.