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Tribe stakes future on gaming
SNOQUALMIE - The Snoqualmie Tribe envisions building a "great lodge"-style casino near Snoqualmie that would make the 1,200-member sovereign nation self-sufficient and able to provide social services for its members.
More than just a place for gaming, preliminary designs for the facility include three restaurants and a large theater, with the entire endeavor expected to employ about 700 people when completed.
Since becoming a federally recognized tribe in 1999, Councilman Ray Mullen, who is also the Tribe's economic development director, said the Snoqualmies have been striving to create a tribal government and infrastructure to provide administrative services.
"What we've been working on for the past two years is putting together something to make ourselves self-sufficient. We have 1,200 members that we're looking out for today," Mullen said at a Snoqualmie City Council meeting last week.
His presentation was the first opportunity for many to view the Tribe's proposal to build a casino near Snoqualmie, inside the city's urban growth boundary. The Snoqualmies want to buy two parcels of land owned by Snoqualmie Hills Joint Venture near Southeast North Bend Way and Exit 27 of Interstate 90.
The two parcels, which total about 56 acres, have been appraised by the King County Assessor's Office at more than $1.2 million.
This summer, the Snoqualmie Tribe filed an application with the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) office in Everett, asking the agency to place the land in trust. That can only happen after the land has been purchased, which follows the completion of an environmental assessment to ensure it's feasible to build a casino.
"We looked at a lot of different things to get ourselves going," Mullen said at the Nov. 13 City Council meeting. "A casino is something that the federal government has allowed us to do, and it's something that we're looking to bank on.
"It's something that's going to get our people the foothold to get going. We need it for our health and human services, for our elder care and our youth care - to get people in working positions, not just for ourselves but for the community."
Snoqualmie City Councilwoman Marcia Korich said the Snoqualmie Tribe should have the opportunity to get that foothold.
"I think they deserve a shot to support themselves financially," she said.
Another council member, Frank Lonergan, said while he personally isn't in favor of a casino, the project does have its advantages.
"Approached properly, it can be a win-win situation all the way around," he said.
However, those who live near 372nd Avenue Southeast across from the site don't like the idea of a casino next door to their houses.
"It was a good presentation. I just don't believe it," said Bert Rainey of the City Council meeting.
Ray Wilson, who also lives near the site, said he's concerned about the traffic and the casino's location in a residential area, adding, "I just don't see a lot of positives that the community will get.
"We want to deal with this intellectually, not emotionally," he said. "But it's hard not to when it's a place we've chosen to raise our kids."
Some have criticized the Tribe since word of the BIA application began to filter out in September that it hadn't communicated enough with residents and cities that would be affected by the project. Mullen said it was the Tribe's intention to present its ideas to the community, and only within the past month has the project begun to take shape.
"We have a long way to go with this, and we're looking for support, and we're looking for comments," he said. "We're just a handful of people trying to put this together, and we want to work with the community; we want to be the good neighbors."
Fifth District Rep. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley, said she was heartened by Mullen's words.
"I think that's a good thing that should be encouraged, so people know exactly what the proposals are and there's an opportunity to get all those questions answered," she said.
According to Mullen and Stephen Walker, who is managing director of Heartland Real Estate Inc. in Seattle and is working with the Snoqualmie Tribe on the casino project, the proposed building would have three levels and have a total of about 175,000 square feet. It would be constructed with high-quality stone and wood and would lack the glaring neon lights and signs found at other casinos. Heartland Real Estate is a partner in Snoqualmie Hills Joint Venture.
The Tribe has secured financial backing for the project from an investor in Arizona, whose identity has not been disclosed. Over the past two years, the Tribe has met with officials from King County, the state Department of Natural Resources and the Mountains to Sound Greenway on selecting a site for the casino.
They looked at about 70 locations along the I-90 corridor, with one of those being near the intersection of State Route 18 and I-90, which is owned by the Weyerhaeuser Co. It was ruled out for a number of factors.
"Environmentally, it would have been encroaching on the Raging River and wetland areas that we didn't want to touch," Mullen said.
Lori Grant, a policy analyst with the King County Office of Regional Policy and Planning, said county officials urged the tribe to locate closer to an urban area.
"We were really stressing the importance of looking for property in the urban growth boundary where services could be made available," she said.
Calling it more of a "destination" than a casino, Mullen and Walker said inside the building would be three restaurants, including a 65-seat gourmet restaurant and a large, lower-priced buffet-style restaurant, gift shops and a 400-seat theater.
The actual casino, which would feature table play and slot machines, would occupy 23 percent of the building's space, Walker said. In all, the facility would employ about 700 people.
The building would offer an impressive view of Mount Si - an important part of the Snoqualmies' heritage - and be surrounded by a terraced parking lot containing about 900 stalls. It would be located in the center of the larger of the two parcels.
"We believe this can be absolutely spectacular for us, as well as the community," Mullen said, adding that it would provide needed jobs for the area. "There's going to be steady employment in this place."
Walker said the center of the larger parcel, which covers more than 228,000 square feet and slopes down toward the city of Snoqualmie from Southeast North Bend Way, had been logged in the 1990s. Under the proposal, trees that serve as a buffer around the outside of the parcel would remain, as would a 30-foot-high berm along the north side Southeast North Bend Way that was created when the road was first constructed.
The main entrance would be located east of where the berm tapers off. A service entrance would be placed just east of where the existing entrance to the property now sits.
Walker said drivers along I-90 would not be able to see the casino, and it would be shielded from view from those looking down from the old winery property and up from the Johnson Heights neighborhood, which is outside Snoqualmie city limits.
In creating the project, Mullen said the Tribal Council has been adamant that it be sensitive to the environment.
"We've been stewards of this land for many, many generations, and we're trying to keep that in focus," he said.
As a sovereign nation, the Snoqualmie Tribe could provide its own police and fire personnel for the casino. But it is opting instead to first talk with Snoqualmie city officials about contracting with the city for police and fire services, as well as water and sewer services.
In a statement, Snoqualmie officials said if the City Council approves providing police and fire services to the casino, the Tribe would compensate the city. It might also allow the city some influence on how the casino is built.
"For example, if the city commits to provide fire protection, it would be able to require in the contract that construction standar