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Originally published January 30, 2013 at 2:48 PM | Page modified January 30, 2013 at 5:22 PM

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Spokane commissioners oppose tribal project

Spokane County commissioners, freed from an agreement that previously prevented them from commenting, have passed a resolution opposing the Spokane Tribe's plan to build a big casino complex at Airway Heights, near Fairchild Air Force Base.

Associated Press

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SPOKANE, Wash. —

Spokane County commissioners, freed from an agreement that previously prevented them from commenting, have passed a resolution opposing the Spokane Tribe's plan to build a big casino complex at Airway Heights, near Fairchild Air Force Base.

The three commissioners on Tuesday afternoon voted unanimously to oppose the project in large part because they fear it could imperil the future of the base, which is Spokane County's largest employer.

"We are literally being asked to gamble the 5,000 current jobs provided by Fairchild on a project that may provide significantly fewer than that," Commissioner Todd Mielke said in a news release. "If we guess wrong, it will take decades for this community to recover."

Air Force base officials have not taken a position on the casino, which would be about a mile from the base.

The Spokane Tribe was disappointed with the county's decision to publicly oppose the proposed casino and believes their concerns for the future of the base are without merit, said Scott Wheat, an attorney for the tribe.

"Since the late 1850s there has been a policy of excluding the Spokane Tribe from the region's economy," Wheat said. "The county commission's action is consistent with that unfortunate pattern."

The Spokane Tribe is seeking rare federal approval to build the casino in the city of Airway Heights, miles from the boundaries of its reservation. A decision is expected in the next 45 days.

The project is opposed by the Kalispel Tribe, which already has a large and successful casino in Airway Heights.

In 2010, the city of Airway Heights reached an agreement with Spokane County commissioners in which the commissioners would remain silent on the proposed casino in exchange for payments to the county of $120,000 a year from casino revenues to deal with impacts. But the two county commissioners who supported that deal have since left, and the new commissioners threatened to sue if the agreement was not torn up.

The city of Airway Heights released the county from the agreement last week, and county commissioners wasted little time in voicing their opposition. The commissioners' position will be sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the state of Washington, which all must approve any proposal for off-reservation gambling by the Spokane Tribe.

Casino supporters say the project will provide revenues to lift many members of the Spokane Tribe out of poverty, and provide some 1,200 jobs in the region.

But opponents, including many Spokane area political and business leaders, worry the proposed casino is too close to the base and may prompt the Air Force to restrict operations or even close the base in the future because of encroachment issues.

Airway Heights continues to support the casino project.

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