The Shinnecock Indian Nation is wasting no time advancing its casino ambitions now that it has received preliminary approval for federal recognition.
While the tribe has all but ruled out opening a gambling facility on or near its Southampton reservation, all other locations appear to be on the table, including Suffolk County sites such as Calverton and Pilgrim State Hospital, Belmont Park racetrack, Aqueduct and even the Catskills.
Shinnecock trustee Fred Bess, who is the lead tribe representative on gaming issues, said in an interview at the Southampton reservation Wednesday that the time was now for the state to enter into negotiations for a "world-class" casino with the tribe.
He predicted such a facility could be open in 18 months. However, some predicted recent government regulations could push approvals well beyond that time. And gaming experts cautioned that the tribe faces a long, challenging road before it can open a full-fledged casino - if it gets the permission to do it at all.
"This really is a long shot. Even if it comes in, it's going to be a marathon. This is not a sprint race," said Bennett Liebman of the Albany Law School, who said other tribes that have applied for off-reservation casinos have encountered a long bureaucratic process.
He said, for instance, that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would have to first do a "massive" environmental impact study.
But Bess remains optimistic and eager.
"Why wait? We've waited 31 years," he said, discussing the time the tribe has waited since applying for federal recognition, which a federal agency preliminarily approved Tuesday. "Let's start today."
Bess, echoing sentiments of Gateway Casino Resorts, the tribe's Detroit financial backers, said it's even possible the Shinnecocks could operate two casinos in the state - one downstate, another in the Catskills. "The ideal would be to have two facilities," he said.
Bess all but discounted the idea of opening a casino on the reservation, or on the 79-acre Westwood property the tribe owns in Hampton Bays. "This is our homeland," he said. "We want to keep this area pristine."
He said the tribe also "wants to be good neighbors," and local residents have opposed such a facility. Still, once it is federally recognized, the tribe would have the right to open a lower-level facility of slot machines on tribal land, and is expected to leverage that right to negotiate bigger projects elsewhere in the state.
In any case, Bess urged lawmakers to begin talks "now."
"Let's hit the ground running and get preliminary negotiations started," he said, saying early talks could help the tribe and the state with badly needed revenue. Some lawmakers are heeding the call.
Another potential obstacle is a Bush administration decision that Indian casinos must be within commuting distance of reservations - or 75 miles - so that Indians would be able to work there.
The Obama administration is looking at possibly changing the rule, but no action has been taken so far.
Those doubts aside, Wednesday state Sen. Craig Johnson (D-Port Washington) sent a letter to Gov. David A. Paterson asking that discussions begin on the feasibility of adding a casino at Belmont Park. He called for a summit between tribal leaders and state officials to discuss the plan, noting that Indian gambling facilities generated $70 million for the state during the 2008-09 fiscal year.
"I am not yet endorsing placing a Shinnecock facility at Belmont," Johnson wrote Paterson. "Such a project must be predicated on a solid plan that includes clear and tangible benefits for its host communities."
A Paterson spokesman did not comment.
Heightened talks about a casino came a day after the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs issued a proposed finding in favor of federal recognition for the tribe. For the Shinnecocks, the finding clears the way for badly needed economic and social programs - home loans, education and health care aid, grants for law enforcement and a tribal court system.
But the right to open a class-II casino brings with it hope that tribal members will have not only jobs, but revenue for higher education and training and development of tribal infrastructure, Bess said.
The tribe said it has good relations with Paterson, and is eager to meet with him now to get talks on a casino started. "We are waiting for that call from Albany to take that first step," Bess said.