Airway Heights, Washington – A crowd of 200 gathered on tribal trust land, which adjoins the city limits of Airway Heights, just west of Spokane. The May 3 gathering was held to discuss the Spokane Tribe’s proposed plans for the 145-acre parcel of land.
Spokane Tribal Chairman Greg Abrahamson chaired the meeting and began, “I hope by this time next year, if everything goes right, we’ll be sticking a shovel in the ground and getting ready for some jobs—jobs for the region and jobs for the tribe.”
Jobs are indeed scarce with 50 percent unemployment on the Spokane Reservation and 34 percent unemployment in and around the West Plains, where Airway Heights is situated. The economic crisis of recent years has had severe impacts on the construction industry, which was well represented at this gathering.
The tribe is proposing to change the face of this acreage with retail stores for shopping and dining, a cultural center, and much more—but the first phase would be a casino and five restaurants including a food court. Between now and “sticking a shovel in the ground,” federal and state approval must first be obtained. This meeting was intended to enlist even more support for the project and to update the present status.
Jerry Hill was one of those present. Hill hails from Scottsdale, Arizona, and serves as a partner for the Las Vegas-based gaming enterprise advisory firm Warner Gaming, which will develop, manage, and finance the entire operation.
“We’re presently getting the environmental document done, the EIS,” Hill explained. “We’ll have the draft of that later this month.” Environmental approval is a major hurdle to pass; the next is getting “two-part determination,” which requires approval from the Secretary of the Interior that the development is in the best interest of the Tribe and not detrimental to nearby communities. After Interior approval is granted, the Washington governor must also concur before the project begins.
Hill thinks the project is on the right track for approval. “[W]e’ve had good support. At Interior, we feel we have good support from that Department and we have a lot of support here—community leaders, businesses, and individuals, just a lot of support. We’ll probably know something by the end of this year.”
The Tribe has initiated the Spokane Tribe Economic Project (STEP) as one means of enlisting support and spreading word about development plans. The city of Airway Heights is a strong supporter, and the mayor, Patrick Rushing, was one of those who spoke at the May 3 gathering. He quoted from a letter sent to Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, saying, “We express our unwavering support for the Spokane Tribe and its project to develop this acreage.” Part of the city’s motto is to “Honor the past,” and Mayor Rushing commented, “We realize the land our city was built on is the aboriginal grounds of the Spokane Tribe.”
Kevin Johnson, President of Spokane Building Trades Council, also spoke strongly in favor of the tribe’s proposal, pointing out the need to create jobs and emphasizing how crucial the 3,800 jobs this project would require will prove to local builders and to the economy. “The building trades and the Tribe have a great deal in common,” he said. “We both want the same thing for our members: employment opportunities, health and welfare benefits, and educational opportunities for our children. We see this as an opportunity to go to work, provide for our families and to move together economically.”
He received the loudest applause of the day when he commented on those who oppose the project. They have “no project, no plan, no vision to create 3,800 jobs. The Spokane Tribe has great leadership, it has great vision. The only thing left is (for those opposed) to get out of the way and get this project going.”
Students from the Wellpinit School District on the Spokane Reservation were present to help in various ways, including taking names and addresses of those who want to be kept informed of progress and possibly to help. Anyone interested in learning more about STEP can visit the website: www.stepspokane.com.