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Originally published September 8, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 8, 2007 at 2:07 AM

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Snoqualmie Tribe pursues package of developments

Just over a year ago, the Snoqualmie Tribe's economic future looked grim. Its casino project teetered on the brink of collapse after a developer...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Just over a year ago, the Snoqualmie Tribe's economic future looked grim.

Its casino project teetered on the brink of collapse after a developer unexpectedly bailed out. Morale sank. And in a complicated deal, the tribe lost millions buying the casino site near Snoqualmie from the investment company.

Now, things are looking up for the tribe. After securing $330 million in financing from investors earlier this year, the tribe has moved full speed ahead — independently — on the casino.

But the money could also pay for much more.

The vision is to go beyond being just a tribe with slot machines and gaming tables. The goal, say tribal leaders, is to develop an economic engine, reclaim a stake in ancestral lands and ensure the tribe's future for generations to come.

Construction work is buzzing on the site off Interstate 90, and the 170,000-square-foot gaming and entertainment center is due to open in November 2008.

Officials are eyeing a half-dozen other projects as well, from taking over a King County park in Fall City to operating the Salish Lodge & Spa, which sits at the edge of Snoqualmie Falls, a sacred site to the tribe.

This summer, the tribe submitted an undisclosed bid for the lodge when it went up for sale.

Hope once again fills the voices of the Snoqualmie, who talk of jobs, housing and health-care services for the 600-member tribe, 42 percent of whom are unemployed.

"It's exciting for the tribe to focus on what their dreams are for their people," said Matt Mattson, tribal administrator. "It's very rewarding that we're getting to this point ... instead of worrying whether it's going to happen."

There's been no word so far on the Salish Lodge bid, but the tribe sees owning it as a prime opportunity, Mattson said.

"Anyone familiar with the tribe understands the importance of the falls," he said, adding that members believe the mist from the waterfalls connects heaven and Earth. "To own a portion of the land adjacent to that site just makes sense."

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Tribal officials also have sent a letter of interest to the board of commissioners at Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, which announced in April it would put its 48-acre campus up for sale. The hospital sits next to the casino site.

"The tribe would love to acquire that land," Mattson said. "The tribal council has a vision of developing a health and wellness center. So this made sense on many levels."

The tribe is looking to build a museum or cultural center in the valley "to tell the tribe's story," Mattson said.

Concern about park

Not everyone has embraced the tribe's plans.

This spring, as word spread about the tribe's interest in taking over Fall City Park, some local residents voiced concern about the tribe's ability to maintain it. King County, in its ongoing effort to unload parks to local jurisdictions, had begun working on an agreement to transfer Fall City Park to the tribe, which has ties to the land. In 2000, archaeologists found artifacts tracing back to a Snoqualmie village site.

Four years ago, the tribe asked the county to transfer the 450-acre Tolt River-John MacDonald Park in Carnation. But county officials ultimately decided to hang on to it because of its regional appeal.

Community groups who use the equestrian arena at Fall City Park question the tribe's experience in operating the facility. Residents are circulating a petition online, and have gathered nearly 800 signatures.

"The tribe has no history of doing this," said Lee Moderow, founder of the Friends of Fall City Arena. "We're not against the tribe ... but whether or not they'd be good stewards of the park is anyone's guess."

Mattson said the tribe, which wants to build a cedar longhouse on the site, is in a better position to maintain the park because of its connection to the land and proximity to it.

Still, the transfer is far from a done deal.

The county Department of Natural Resources and Parks has to make a recommendation to Executive Ron Sims within a month, spokesman Doug Williams said. Sims will then issue his opinion to the County Council, which will vote on it after a series of public hearings.

Casino is key concern

Although the tribe has a lot of irons in the fire, its foremost concern is the casino and paying off the $330 million investment to creditors, who are banking on its success. The tribe hopes to be debt-free in eight years or sooner, Mattson said.

The mountain-lodge-style casino will include a 1,000-seat event center, five restaurants, four bars, 1,650 slot machines and 52 Vegas-style table games. It will be built on a 56-acre woodsy site off Interstate 90 — just outside the city of Snoqualmie — with a panoramic view of the valley.

"We're proud," said tribal Chief Jerry Enick. "The patrons will be in awe when they come here."

The casino will employ 860 people, said Michael Barozzi, CEO of Casino Snoqualmie. First dibs on the jobs go to members of the Snoqualmie Tribe.

Barozzi predicts the casino will get an average of 5,000 visitors a day, based on the casino's location 27 miles east of Seattle off a main thoroughfare that thousands of cars use daily.

Sadness and pride

When he thinks about what his people endured to get to this point, Enick feels a mixture of sadness and pride.

At one time, the Snoqualmie Tribe was 4,000 strong and one of the largest tribes in the Puget Sound area. In 1855, Snoqualmie Chief Patkanim — Enick's great-great-uncle — ceded all tribal lands, from Snoqualmie Pass to Everett, to the U.S. government as part of the Point Elliott Treaty. People scattered throughout the Puget Sound region.

The tribe lost federal recognition in 1952, and regained it in 1999 after a long struggle. Members had to wait another five years for federal approval to build a casino. Then last year, the project nearly bottomed out after a development deal soured.

But Enick said he's not focused on the past anymore. He's excited for the casino to open and usher in an era of financial security.

"I've had to learn to be really patient," said Enick, 74. "It's been a long, tedious road. But it will get done when it gets done ... and the wait will be worth it."

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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