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State looks to Shinnecock casino plans as revenue booster

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation gather and

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation gather and invite other indigenous people and their neighbors on Long Island to share in the bounty of their culture, traditions and pageantry at the tribe's annual powwow. (August 29, 2008). Credit: Newsday file, 2008 / Silvana Velarde

Nassau Coliseum and Brookhaven Calabro Airport have emerged as the leading casino choices of the Shinnecock Indian Nation as the tribe and its backers work to secure political support for plans for as many as three casino/entertainment complexes around Long Island, tribal and political officials say.

With federal recognition approved last week, pending a final comment period, tribal representatives went to Albany on Friday for meetings with Gov. David A. Paterson's staff to build the framework for a revenue-sharing and site-selection compact.

Armed with their new status, land claims of nearly 3,600 acres in the heart of the Hamptons and the right to open a casino on their Southampton reservation, the tribe is exerting its influence.

In the weeks leading up to, and in the days following last Tuesday's nod from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal representatives held a flurry of meetings with political leaders, union heads and developers such as Charles Wang.

"We had a positive meeting today with the governor's counsel" Shinnecock tribal chairman Randy King said Friday. "They said, 'You have to show us you have the support to get this done.' I think we have the support and can get that done."

Paterson's office, which is charged with negotiating the compact, has cautioned that, with significant bureaucratic milestones ahead, a casino isn't likely to open anytime soon. "The Shinnecock Indian Nation has numerous hurdles to clear before it could develop a casino off-reservation," said Paterson. He isn't running for election, however, and his successor would have to sign off on the compact if talks extend into next year.

A Paterson spokesman did not return several calls for comment about the Friday meeting.

Nonetheless, the tribe's overriding message to the state remains: New York is strapped and casino projects would mean thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

"There's a lot of folks who are out of work in New York and their leaders are really looking to get this project done," King said. "I think they're going to be calling on the governor's office and saying, 'Let's get it done.' "

 

Securing political support

Tribal leaders say their goal is to secure as much political support as possible to advance their plans. As part of that effort they:

Signed a memorandum of understanding with the politically powerful New York Hotel Trades Council agreeing that any property it develops will hire the union's members.

Met last week with the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council, pledging to use union workers on their projects.

In addition, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said in an interview Thursday he would be willing to sponsor federal legislation for a "land-in-trust" proposal that the tribe would need for any casino off its reservation.

The tribe and its backers at Gateway Casino Resorts of Detroit also are narrowing a list of just over a half-dozen possible casino sites, with Brookhaven Calabro Airport in Shirley and Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale now leading the pack.

"Those are definitely the leading candidates," said a tribal representative who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak for the tribe. He emphasized that "nothing is off the table," and stressed that once sites are finalized the tribe intends to reach out to local communities to communicate its intentions and to hear their concerns.

Senior trustee Lance Gumbs said the tribe's checklist for potential sites, as well as traits that would make the Coliseum and airport appealing, include accessibility - nearby highways, rail lines and air transport - and access to vital public services like utilities. "It's got to have infrastructure already in place," he said. "Anything that can cut the potential cost of development" is a plus, he said.

King acknowledged, as have Gateway backers, that multiple casino locations are possible. "If the state is willing to entertain multiple sites, I think we have the focus to get it done," he said.

Senior Shinnecock trustee Lance Gumbs said the tribe hopes to reach a "compact agreement" with the state akin to that reached by the Seneca Nation upstate in 2002. That agreement allowed three casinos in exchange for Seneca giving up land claims.

The Shinnecocks have substantial land claims, too - nearly 3,600 acres in Southampton, including the Shinnecock Hills Golf Course and the former Southampton College - worth more than $1.2 billion. They will also soon have the right to open a casino on their Southampton reservation, though that, too, is considered a remote option.

 

Leverage from land claims

No one expects the tribe to annex Southampton properties. But like the right to build on the reservation, the land claims remain key chess pieces in a strategy designed to deliver for the tribe and its Detroit backers one or more world-class "entertainment" complexes on Long Island.

Political backing already appears to be building at the local and federal level.

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said he has a handshake agreement with the tribe to support its efforts after it decided not to pursue a casino in the Hamptons. "Being a member of the State Legislature, I have access to public officials. . . . I see myself as playing a role in terms of a compact," Thiele said.

Bishop said he's had an "evolving agreement" with the tribe over what his role would be.

"I have made clear my opposition to a casino on the East End of Long Island since February of 2003," Bishop said. Since then, he said, "I have been working with them to try to find a spot where a casino would be accepted."

Gumbs stressed that site selection is far from finalized. "We have ideas and still a number are being looked at," he said.

Gumbs said the aim of any casino project will be for a "family-run entertainment complex." He rejected the idea that a Shinnecock facility would look like a traditional casino.

"What I've been hearing from people is, you say 'casino' [and] they think Atlantic City," Gumbs said. "Indian gaming is far removed from that. This is a family business, and as such we intend to fully operate it that way."

In addition, he said, there will be benefits for the surrounding community - not only in jobs, but also in the potential to lower property taxes.

"People keep saying, 'What a strain it will put on public resources,' " Gumbs said. "Well, the opposite is true. Gaming enhances those resources."

With Celeste Hadrick and James T. Madore


 

THE HURDLES AHEAD

 

Before any ground can be broken for Shinnecock casino:

-- The tribe must finish a 30-day waiting period, during which the recognition decision will be published in the Federal Register. The process is expected to conclude July 15.

-- The tribe must negotiate a compact with the State of New York. It would stipulate how revenue from casino operations would be shared with the state and which locations are most suitable, among other things.

-- An off-reservation casino would need to secure an agreement with the federal government. Known as a land-in-trust agreement, it would essentially declare the remote property tribal ground. This agreement can be secured either through a decision by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs or by an Act of Congress.

-- The tribe also must either be welcomed, or convince a host community that a casino is in its best interests. The tribe has expressed a strong desire to secure the support of local community groups and political leaders.

- Mark Harrington

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