Commission OKs gaming pact

TUKWILA - The Snoqualmie Tribe cleared its first major hurdle to building a proposed casino following the Washington State Gambling Commission's approval of a gaming compact between the Tribe and the state.

The commission signed off on the Class III compact at its monthly meeting Thursday, Jan. 10, in Tukwila. It will be forwarded to Gov. Gary Locke, who is expected to ratify the document, which will then go to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton for her approval.

Earning its federal recognition in 1999, the Snoqualmie Tribe is among the last of the federally recognized Native American tribes in Washington to obtain a gaming compact. Prior to last week, of the 28 tribes, 24 had gaming compacts, while four - including the Snoqualmies - were in negotiations with the Gambling Commission. The Snoqualmie Tribe first requested to begin negotiations with the Gambling Commission on Jan. 23, 2001.

The Class III gaming compact will allow the Tribe to operate Las Vegas-style games inside its proposed casino, which would be located on about 56 acres of land near the intersection of Southeast North Bend Way and Interstate 90. Class III games, like craps, roulette, poker, blackjack, keno and tribal lottery games, are allowed under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Tribe says proceeds from gaming will allow it to provide services such as health care to its more than 1,000 members.

The compact is much the same as other gaming compacts negotiated with Washington state Native American tribes. According to the document, the Snoqualmie Tribe can have a maximum of 31 gaming stations, or tables, and one nonprofit gaming station for local, county and state nonprofit organizations. The limit for wagers is $250, and the casino cannot be open for more than 114 hours a week.

After six months, the casino could be approved for "phase two." That would increase the number of gaming stations to a maximum of 50, with two additional nonprofit gaming stations. It would also raise the wager limit to $500 and increase the casino's hours of operation to 140 a week.

Frank Miller, a Tacoma attorney serving as the Tribe's outside gaming counsel, said after several decades of not being recognized by the federal government and not being able to take care of tribal members, the commission's approval of the compact would be a big first step toward the Tribe's self-sufficiency.

"It's important that this compact be passed and hopefully go forward to the governor's office," he told commissioners before the vote.

After introducing Snoqualmie Tribe council members to the Gambling Commission, tribal Vice Chairwoman Mary Anne Hinzman said even without the casino, the compact would help generate revenue for the Tribe. Under the gaming compact, tribes that don't have casinos are allowed to lease their gaming machines to other tribes for use in their casinos.

"With this compact, whether the casino opens right away or whether we lease out machines, [it] is going to bring revenue immediately to us" to help provide senior care, child care and administrative services, she said.

In December, the Snoqualmie City Council agreed to discuss with the Tribe providing police, fire, water and sewer services to the casino. At the Gambling Commission meeting, City Attorney Pat Anderson said he couldn't speak either for or against the gaming compact because the council hasn't taken a position on the casino itself. But he did say Snoqualmie's mayor, Fuzzy Fletcher, favors the Tribe's effort to become self-sufficient.

"The mayor very much supports the aspirations of the Tribe," he said.

Some neighbors of the would-be casino also support the Tribe's goals, but they believe the casino is in the wrong location. They also say there isn't enough information about the potential impact of the casino on the surrounding area, including its social, economic and environmental costs.

"We really don't have the information right now to determine whether this will be detrimental to the community," said Jim Anderson.

Ray Wilson, who helped organize the group Snoqualmie Valley Citizens for Positive Growth and Development to oppose the casino, urged the commission to table its vote until that information is gathered.

"We want to maintain the vitality of a pretty unique place," he said of the Valley.

However, the Tribe is still collecting information. An environmental assessment of the 56 acres in the urban growth boundary of Snoqualmie - owned by Snoqualmie Hills Joint Venture - is under way, and plans for the casino aren't fully developed.

"I don't know how you investigate the future," said Gambling Commission Vice Chairman Curtis Ludwig in response to statements about the need for more information. He suggested concerned residents should look to other cities in which tribal casinos have been built.

"You might find that there is no adverse impact," he said.

The Tribe has already made a presentation before the Snoqualmie City Council, as well as discussing its proposal with local, state and national officials. More presentations will take place this month and next, starting with the Jan. 22 North Bend City Council meeting. Future meetings will occur with the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Snoqualmie Ridge Residential Owners Association and the Rotary Club, among others.

The approval of the gaming compact is not related to the Tribe's application to Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the 56 acres of land in trust, creating the Snoqualmies' first reservation. For some Native American tribes, that process has taken years to complete.

In this instance, Miller would like to see the bureaucratic wheels turn more swiftly.

"We're hopeful it's going to happen in six months," he said.

You can reach Barry Rochford at (425) 888-2311, or e-mail him at barry.

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