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News / Northwest

2 PNW tribes say Tri-Cities casino plan could start an ‘Indian war’

By Wendy Culverwell, Tri-City Herald
Published: April 30, 2024, 12:17pm

KENNEWICK — A proposed casino in Pasco is being criticized by rivals who say the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have no right to the Tri-Cities and that its plans will devastate nearby casinos.

“You’re going to start an Indian war,” Ruth Jim, a member of the council of the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation, said during a four-hour hearing held April 24 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency is taking comment on the scope of a environmental impact statement to assess the project’s impacts.

The impact statement is required under federal law.

The virtual hearing offered one of the first public forums to comment on the Colville plan for a casino, hotel, event center, restaurants and supporting facilities on property the tribes own north of the King City Truck Stop in Pasco.

The Yakama are on record opposing the casino on territorial and other grounds. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation added its opposition for similar reasons during the hearing.

The Colville want to build a casino and other amenities on 165 acres off Highway 395 and Kartchner Street. If it secures federal and Washington state approval, it will be the tribe’s fourth casino and the Tri-Cities’ first tribal casino.

The Yakama, based in Toppenish, and CTUIR, based in the Pendleton, Ore., area, both assert the Colville lack the right to build in the Tri-Cities under their respective 1855 treaties with the U.S. government.

Officials argued a Pasco casino would devastate their own casinos.

The Yakama marked the 25th anniversary of the Legends Casino last May.

The Umatilla operate Wildhorse Resort and Casino near Pendleton. The two casinos are roughly 90 minutes in opposite directions from southern Kennewick.

Reservation sighting ‘Pandora’s Box’

The Yakama Nation and CTUIR both depend on their casinos to fund important tribal government services and employ members.

Both built the complexes within their reservation boundaries. The Colville are taking a different tact in Pasco — a point that rankles its critics.

The tribe paid $2.9 million for a collection of parcels in Pasco site 2019 with the intent of creating a casino there, away from its reservation.

It initiated the federal “Fee-to-Trust” process in 2023 when it applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to place the property into a federal trust. The multi-step process is spelled out in the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The Colville’s other three casinos, which operate under the 12 Tribes name, are on its reservation in the Ritzville about 75 miles north of Pasco. The Colville can open up to six casinos in Washington under its compact with the state.

Letisha Peterson, general manager for Legends Resort and Casino, described the world of tribal casinos as cooperative. The Yakama casino employs 700 and provides income to half the 11,000 enrolled members.

A rival in Pasco could cause a rift, she said., echoing Ruth Jim.

Alan Tovey is Peterson’s counterpart at Wildhorse.

Tovey is proud of the work CTUIR has done to create economic opportunities on the Umatilla reservation. Inviting non-local tribes to set up shop next door sets a troubling precedent, he said.

Ethan Jones, lead attorney for the Yakama Nation, said the tribes will appeal the BIA process on procedural grounds. BIA has not disclosed the full application or other documents, he said. Allowing off-reservation casinos would open a “Pandora’s Box,” he added.

The plan and its supporters

The Colville aims to build a 184,200-square-foot casino, eight-story hotel with 200 rooms, restaurants, 1,500-spot parking lot and other amenities along North Capitol Avenue, near the Kartchner exit in north Pasco.

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As part of the 12 Tribes casino network, it would support tribal services and provide jobs to members who live off the Colville reservations.

It would support about 2,000 jobs through construction and an employment base of 5,000 in the first five years, Jarred-Michael Erickson, chairman of the tribes.

After the initial land deal, the Colville began building support for their proposal in the Tri-Cities. The tribes have entered agreements with the city of Pasco, Franklin County, the Port of Pasco and other local government entities pledging mutual cooperation.

Adam Lincoln, Pasco’s city manager, Colin Hastings, executive director of the Pasco Chamber, and Stephen McFadden, economic development director for the port, all voiced support for the casino plan, saying the jobs and tourism activity it will generate will be welcome additions.

What happens next?

The BIA hearing will help determine the scope of an environmental impact statement that will scrutinize the casino’s impact on the environment and community. Written comments will be accepted through Friday, May 3. Go to colvilleeis.com for information.

Tribal gaming is a lucrative industry in Washington, accounting for a majority of the $3.8 billion in net gambling receipts for the year that ended June 30, 2023, according to the Washington State Gambling Commission’s annual gambling activity report.

Tribal casinos accounted for almost $3 billion of the total.

Those figures would include the 35 tribal casinos in Washington but not Wildhorse, which is in Oregon..

“Commercial” gambling such as pull tabs and house-banked card rooms accounted for $437 million. The Lottery $385 million, nonprofits $32.5 million and horse racing $19.8 million.