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Elmont critics, fans eye Shinnecock casino at Belmont

Rajiv Maragh rides Diamondrella across the finish line

Rajiv Maragh rides Diamondrella across the finish line for the 7th race during the Belmont Stakes in Elmont on June 06, 2009. Photo Credit: Newsday File / Ana P. Gutierrez

Residents in Elmont already are battling over a possible casino to be built by the Shinnecock Indians at the Belmont racetrack.

Barely a day after the federal government gave preliminary recognition of the Shinnecocks as a tribe, Elmont residents were either salivating over the idea of a casino at the track or cringing at the thought of it.

"It's a no-brainer. Belmont is the place" for a Shinnecock-run casino, said Pat Nicolosi of Elmont's East End Civic Association. He said a casino would revitalize the sagging racetrack, inject new energy into a struggling neighborhood and provide desperately needed revenue for local schools.

But Xavier Rodriguez of the Locustwood/Gotham Civic Association said a casino on the site would be a recipe for disaster. "There is no economic or financial proof that a casino may help any surrounding community in the long term, and there is an extensive list where casinos have destroyed the fabrics of communities, lives and families," he said.

He added that the casino would be too close to local schools, and would turn traffic on roads such as Hempstead Turnpike into a nightmare.

Elmont has been caught up for years in a debate about bringing video lottery terminals, or VLTs, to Belmont - a legislative proposal that has gone nowhere. But now the prospect of an even larger enterprise - a full-fledged casino replete with poker games and roulette wheels has the community atwitter.

The Shinnecocks are betting that their new status, expected to be finalized by the spring, along with land claims on areas surrounding their reservation in Southampton, will allow them to leverage permission from the federal government to build a casino on land off their 800-acre reservation in Southampton.

One prime possible site is Belmont.

There may be political will in the state to help them achieve it, but there may also be opposition among lawmakers. State Assembly leader Sheldon Silver is already on the record opposing VLTs at Belmont.

"He's been blocking VLTs at Belmont. How do you suddenly say, 'Let's put a full-fledged casino in at Belmont?' " said Bennett Liebman, a gaming expert at Albany Law School.

Kathryn Rand at the University of North Dakota School of Law said that while there are a handful of off-reservation Indian casinos in the U.S., getting approval for one "is really tough."

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