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Push for Shinnecock casino plan stalls

At the Resort World Casino in Jamaica, Queens,

At the Resort World Casino in Jamaica, Queens, more than 4,000 video lottery terminals with varying themes spread out across the two floors. (July 27, 2012) Credit: Nancy Borowick

The Shinnecock Nation's longtime plans to launch a Long Island casino are being stalled by internal squabbles and wavering political support.

The casino effort comes as competition for gaming dollars is intensifying, with the growth of racinos within the state, new casinos opening in neighboring states and some Indian casinos such as Foxwoods in Connecticut struggling financially. The tribe also faces the prospect of as many as seven new non-Indian gaming ventures in the state if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed referendum on commercial gaming is approved next year.

Until July, the Shinnecock and its backers at Gateway Casino Resorts of Detroit had been negotiating to acquire an 80-acre parcel in Yaphank adjacent to the Brookhaven Rail Terminal. But delays in seeking full tribal approval for the site, and authorizing a $3 million check for an option to purchase the land, ultimately led the deal to fall through.

Shinnecock spokeswoman Beverly Jensen and a spokeswoman for the rail terminal declined to comment.


Lack of progress 'alarming'

"It's alarming," Suffolk Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Lindenhurst) said of the lack of progress on a casino. "They have friends out there who want them to succeed, but the issue has gone quiet.

"It's disturbing and it's sad," said Horsley, who formed a legislative gaming task force to help the tribe find sites for a casino in Suffolk County.

The tribe won federal recognition in October 2010 after a 30-year effort, sealing its status as a sovereign nation eligible for governmental, housing, police and health programs, and gaining the right to open casinos and lower-level gaming facilities.

Two years later, the tribe remains determined to better its lot -- even as frustration increases over the lack of progress. Just last week, four tribal leaders, who were removed from their posts last month amid allegations they were negotiating business deals without tribal authority, argued before the tribe that their efforts were for nongaming enterprises and were for the long-term benefit of the tribe.

The official removal of trustees Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright, men who are frequently the voice and face of the nation, has left those who typically interact with the tribe wondering what comes next.

The men have denied wrongdoing and their removal remains subject to a tribal investigation. The tribe called the decision an "internal" matter.

Tribal chairman Randy King declined to be interviewed.

Former New York Gov. David A. Paterson, who wrote a letter while in office backing the tribe's recognition request, suggested the Shinnecock's unwillingness to pursue a casino in communities that have opposed them may be slowing its progress.

"They have their internal squabbles, but they have also tried to show a sense that they want to be good neighbors," Paterson said. He added that any other group given the leeway the tribe has won through federal recognition "would have taken advantage of their status."

Jon Schneider, Suffolk County's deputy executive, acknowledged that "there have not been any recent developments regarding the Shinnecocks or a casino" in Suffolk.

For tribal members, the hope that blossomed with federal recognition has gradually segued into frustration. Anii Brown, chairwoman of the tribal council, an advisory group, in many ways represented that hope. A 30-year-old entrepreneur with her own marketing and promotions company, she made the decision recently to leave Shinnecock to launch a business venture with an Ojibway woman from Arizona.

"It's a good time to get away," she said of her decision to leave the reservation after 29 years.

"The gaming part puts a different dimension of division," she said. "It's personal now, it's families and everybody's fighting. It's caused drama and internal strife."

Brown and others have put some of the blame on Cuomo, whom tribal members say has declined to meet with the tribe to discuss a gaming compact and other economic development. Cuomo "needs to be willing to sit down with us," she said. "This is about the survival of an entire people."

A spokesman for Cuomo did not respond to a request seeking comment.


Tribe's lobbying efforts

Tribal efforts to lobby the state have been considerable. Last year, tribal financial backer Gateway paid former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato's lobbying firm, Park Strategies, $97,500, according to state lobbying records. The firm largely lobbied the State Senate to back a casino, the records show. A Park Strategies spokeswoman didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

The tribe also has hired law firm Meyer Suozzi English & Klein, among other firms, to lobby the State Assembly on its behalf for a tribal casino, records show.

A person close to the tribe who is familiar with those efforts said it's not so much Cuomo's refusal to meet with the Shinnecock tribe as the tribe's need to push ahead and galvanize support that has slowed its casino efforts.

"I don't believe the governor is necessarily the obstacle," said the person, who is not authorized to speak for the tribe. "They don't have a site in Suffolk. That's the number one issue. [And] they have to clean up the mess they have internally."


Support disappearing

The person also said the tribe holds out hope for a casino at Belmont Park in Nassau County, a site that was prominent in the tribe's plan, until Cuomo said earlier this year that the site would "not make sense" given its proximity to the racino at the Aqueduct Racetrack.

A contingent of largely Republican state lawmakers who earlier backed the tribe's plan for a Belmont casino now appear opposed to it.

"A casino at Belmont is not going to happen," said Joe Rizza, a spokesman for Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola).

Asked why, he said, "Upon further study, a casino wasn't a viable option for the site and there wasn't a consensus among the communities that would be affected by a casino."

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who initially proposed the site last year after support for a casino at Nassau Coliseum collapsed, also withdrew support.

"While there is no pending agreement with the Shinnecock Nation, we are always open to meeting with the leadership," Mangano spokeswoman Katie Grilli-Robles said.

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