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Polson commission says yes to casino annexation

by Max Dupras/Intern Reporter
| August 10, 2023 12:00 AM

A near unanimous decision on Aug. 7 by the Polson City Commission confirmed the annexation of a 79-acre piece of land owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. About 10 acres of the property, north of the Polson Bridge on Highway 93 and Irvine Flats Road, will be the new home of the casino currently housed at KwaTaqNuk Resort.

Polson City Hall council chambers were filled to capacity with about 50 people on Monday night to voice both concerns and support for the project. Because of fire safety rules, there were roughly 10 people who were waiting in the hallway and, due to technical difficulties, they were not able to view the meeting.

CSKT land use planning director Janet Camel spoke about the proposed annexation and how the casino is only one step in a multi-phase project that could include a hotel, multiple low-cost residential areas, an RV park, and a visitor’s center for Polson and the Flathead Reservation..

“We could put in our own well and sewage treatment if we need to but we’d rather work with the City of Polson,” she said.

Daniel Hansen, the CEO of S&K Gaming, spoke in favor of the casino, emphasizing that it will replace the casino in KwaTuqNuk, allowing the resort to revert to a more family-friendly attraction.

“Moving the casino we have now out of the resort allows the resort to focus on family-friendly things like the INFR rodeo and the Rockin’ the Dock series, while moving the casino to the outskirts of town allows us to focus on the casino as a business,” he said.

The resort will become “much more smoke free and be much more safe and a better kind of establishment,” he added. “We're really trying to focus on that.”

While the resort might retain a few gaming machines, the majority will be moved to the new casino.

He also noted that over the years, KwaTaqNuk has paid over $2 million in PILT and donations to the city, in addition to water/sewer fees. “We do this voluntarily because we want to be a good neighbor,” he said.

Polson City Manager Ed Meece also went over the updated information available for commission members, including a traffic report commissioned by CSKT, the environmental impact report and a template for a Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILT agreement.

Lack of this information was the main cause for the annexation vote being tabled in the first place. The original vote was scheduled for last July and, due to concerns about traffic congestion and demands on the city’s water and sewer system, commissioners postponed their decision.

Although more information was provided, Ward 2 commissioner Tony Isbell still expressed concerns about traffic, whether the Polson bridge could handle more weight from additional vehicles, and the ability of the water/sewer lines that cross the river beneath the bridge to handle the additional load. He also voiced frustration about the lack of time the commission had to review the 56 pages of new details.

He initially made a motion to approve the resolution, with the stipulation that highway issues and questions about sewer/water capacity and easements be resolved first. It failed for lack of a second.

Other commissioners, including Isbell’s Ward 2 partner Laura Dever and Ward 3 commissioner Brodie Moll, praised the project and the additional information they had received.

“I think we have to move forward as good neighbors,” said Ward 3 commissioner Carolyn Pardini. “The growth will be beneficial for all of us.”

After some brief discussion from the commission, the floor was open for residents and others associated with CSKT and the annexation.

Roughly 15 people spoke during the public comment period, with the majority expressing concerns about traffic issues. Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron, who owns property on Rocky Point Road and a business in Polson, was one of the many who had concerns about the traffic study done. He criticized it for not including Rocky Point Road, which intersects the highway just past Irvine Flats.

“If Rocky Point traffic isn't brought into this equation and part of the equation, it's going to be a problem,” he said.

The other concern dealt with gambling and how some residents were worried that a casino would bring in more crime. Two Lake County residents, Larry Ashcraft of Polson and Michael Robertson of Ronan, cited increased drug usage and “morals” as issues to them.

“Every casino brings more human trafficking and more drugs – this can only bring more drugs to Polson, which we don’t need,” Ashcraft said, while Robertson, a pastor in Ronan, called it “a deal with the devil.”

However, the contingent in favor of the casino was just as vocal. In addition to Hansen and Camel, members of the S&K Gaming Board of Directors were there to speak, including KwaTuqNuk’s general manager and CSKT member Sheila Matt.

“We have family members who are affected by drugs and alcohol and all of that,” Matt said in response to concerns about increased drug usage. “And yes, you bet we are trying to fix these issues. So, if you think that the tribe is turning a blind eye to all of that, then you guys are sadly mistaken.”

Three Tribal Council members were also on hand – vice chair Len Twoteeth, Jennifer Finley and Martin Charlo. Twoteeth expressed optimism “about wanting to collaborate with the City of Polson on this project and future projects.” CSKT members also emphasized the ways in which the Tribes contribute financially to Polson, including around $700,000 a year in

After over two hours of deliberation and public comment, the commission cast their votes on a project that’s been in limbo for a year. The motion for contiguous annexation was approved 6-1 with only Isbell voting against the proposal after having his initial motion with amendments was shot down.

Even though a final vote has passed, Mayor Eric Huffine recommended any concerns that citizens had could be discussed with their commissioners. For more information, go to www.cityofpolson.com/mayorcomm/page/city-commission for contacts.