STEP critics decry tribe-funded study
An artist’s rendering from 2011 of what the proposed Spokane Tribe Economic Project (STEP) could look like at final build out, with a casino and resort tower.
Last Wednesday, local representatives and business leaders opposed to the proposed casino and hotel in the Spokane Tribe Economic Project criticized the tribe’s recent study that claimed it posed no threat to Fairchild Air Force Base.
The Madison Government Affairs study, released last week and funded by the Spokane Tribe, said the only encroachment pertaining to Fairchild was the mobile home park in the southern portion of Airway Heights. Plans are currently underway to attempt to reduce the density in that area, which lies in the flight pattern of the air base’s planes.
“We are concerned that the (STEP) location is harmful to the future of Fairchild Air Force Base. I’d say we’re dismayed,” Greater Spokane Incorporated President and CEO Rich Hadley said last week.
Jim McDevitt, a retired Washington Air National Guard Commander and former U.S. Attorney General for the Eastern District of Washington, said the Madison study was disingenuous and could be easily discredited once looking deeper into the findings.
McDevitt said flight training patterns from the KC-135 planes, which form a racetrack pattern to the north of the base, can’t be adjusted. The Spokane Tribe’s study, he said, doesn’t take into account the limitations placed on the base due to Spokane International Airport, which operates to the south of the base’s runway.
GSI and other representatives opposed to the development have pointed out that the airport restricts Fairchild’s ability to operate south of the base, and Airway Heights has some structures that prevent its operation to the north. Sunset Elementary and the Airway Heights Corrections Center are specifically two areas the base avoids flying over.
Noise pollution from the planes’ pattern would take place directly over the proposed resort location on STEP. McDevitt argued that while the Spokane Tribe may not object to the noise, guests at the hotel aren’t held to the same standards.
“You’re not going to pay a couple hundred bucks a night to have a tanker fly overhead,” he said.
Light pollution is also a concern, and was brought forward by the corrections center within 60 days of the facility’s opening in 1992.
But most concerning to McDevitt was the potential for placing a large amount of people at risk if something went wrong. With training flights right over the STEP property, he argued time is a crucial element.
“When you’re moving at 180 knots in a pattern, that’s over three and a half miles a minute, area is rather relative,” he said.
McDevitt said the two major crashes since 1980, a B-52 plane and a KC-135 tanker, at Fairchild were lucky to land in the confines of the base.
“Thirty seconds, a mile and a half, they could be anywhere. So to dismiss as they have by saying that there have been no accidents in the area of the casino is absolute garbage,” he said.
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the gaming exemption the tribe is seeking for its casino to operate outside of the reservation, is one that very few tribes have successfully argued.
“This is a national precedent decision that has broad implications not just on this region, but the entire United States,” he said.
Mielke said a manufacturing facility on the site could work hand-in-hand with Fairchild while also providing valuable jobs. He also pointed to a Spokesman-Review article from 1999 that specifically said the Spokane Tribe wouldn’t pursue gaming on the property, only to have the statement change to having the possibility of gaming later in the year.
The Kalispel Tribe, which owns and operates Northern Quest Resort and Casino, also originally planned to build a health center for its tribal members before pursuing its current operation.
Cheney Mayor Tom Trulove was also at the press conference and said there are dozens of alternative locations in Spokane County that are better suited for the type of activity that would take place at STEP. That wasn’t the case, he said, for the air base, and the possibility of a threat should be taken seriously.
“There is only one location for Fairchild,” he said. “There are no alternatives. And if we were to lose Fairchild, we will have lost not only that economic impact, but we aren’t going to get another military base. This is critical, folks. Why take a chance?”
Hadley said a GSI survey of 400 people showed a 40 percent approval rating for the project when respondents were asked a neutral question. When the possibility of harming Fairchild was mentioned, however, 60 percent of those who previously approved the project changed their minds.
Throughout the project’s development, Hadley said GSI and other representatives were in regular contact with those making the decisions regarding encroachment in Washington, D.C.
Part of the concern also factors in the Air Force’s selection of the first base to house the new KC-46A tankers, which will replace the KC-135 fleet. Fairchild is in the running to be that first base. The Air Force is expected to make its decision in mid-May.
One contingent in the decision, Hadley said, was that the Air Force could change its mind depending on what happens around the air base in the next year.
The final draft of the Environmental Impact Statement closed its comment period May 1, and now awaits a decision from the Bureau of Indian affairs before moving on to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Inslee will have up to a year to make his decision on STEP following BIA approval.
James Eik can be reached at email@example.com.