By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO April 18, 2003 For several decades, Sullivan County residents have pinned their hopes for a better life to casino gambling. Now, the county is closer than ever with three proposed casino projects currently on the table.
However, the infighting is also at a level not seen in years, and at this point its anyones guess who will be the first to open a casino if any at all.
Currently, three projects have been proposed and are sitting in various stages. Each needs approval from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and the tribes need to work out an agreement with New York State Governor George Pataki. Also, a lawsuit declaring the legislation illegal is being challenged in court. No project can move forward until that is settled.
The closest to federal approval are the St. Regis Mohawks. They have proposed a casino with Park Place Entertainment at Kutshers Sports Academy but they are being slowed down by a lawsuit from Catskill Development, with which they once had an agreement for a casino at the Monticello Raceway.
The second casino is proposed for Route 17s Exit 107 off Bridgeville Road. That casino would be run by the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe with Trading Cove Associates. The holdup with that is the governors office does not recognize them as a New York tribe. The governor has repeatedly stated that he would not make a deal with any non-New York tribe. Stockbridge has a court ruling in their favor, however, and some discussion has taken place.
The third project has been the most controversial. The Cayuga Nation of New York and Empire Resorts, Inc. (formerly Alpha Hospitality), and Catskill Development are proposing a casino on 30 acres of property at the Monticello Raceway.
Six years ago, Catskill Development struck a deal with the Village of Monticello for a casino agreement worth $5 million but that fell by the wayside when the Mohawks were wooed away by Park Place. The other two tribes subsequently entered into agreements with the county for $15 million apiece.
County, state, and federal officials have stated they would not support the Raceway project unless the tribe cuts a deal with the county. Catskill, however, is sticking to their agreement with the village and has submitted their land-in-trust application to the BIA. As yet, they have not held discussions with the county or the town for an agreement although rumors persist that work will begin on the project within the next few months.
The racetrack has been the subject of several meetings and other discussions this past week. Most notably, a large crowd turned out in favor of the project at the villages board meeting on Monday. Well over 70 people came out to voice their support and find out where the board stands on the issue.
If Sullivan County should ever receive $1 or $45 million from any Indian gaming establishments, it is because one man put his money where his mouth is. That person is Robert Berman, commented Monticello business owner Ray Nargizian. Robert Berman is Sullivan Countys Bugsy Siegal without the bugs and without the desert. Let us today join forces so that we can achieve that which the vast majority of Sullivan County citizens are praying for. Indian gaming is a reality. Let us rally behind this project in good faith. Let us negotiate in good faith. Let us pool all our resources. There is only one victory. That victory is gaming in Sullivan County.
The deal will guarantee the village $5 million, stated Monticello Raceway driver Edward Smith. We have starved to death for 25-30 years. We have the right to keep it in the village.
This is a bird in the hand, Monticello resident Daryl Kaplan said. It is the only project in Monticello that is a reality. For years, our greatest export has been our children.
The agreement we negotiated several years ago is valid, noted former Village Attorney Leo Glass. It was passed and approved. You need to support the deal.
Then the citizens asked the board how they felt about the subject. One by one, they made their feelings known.
I will always consider the residents and the businesses of this village first, remarked Trustee Victor Marinello Jr. That is our first priority, and everything else is second. We have an approved contract that was voted on.
We made the deal, and we will not back out, commented Trustee David Rosenberg. The $15 million is like extortion. They are trying to squeeze us. It is chutzpah to ask for the $15 million. This deal is fair for the track and the community. There is nothing to discuss.
There is an approved deal in place, stated Trustee Mary Jo Oppenheim. It will cover our costs. How can the county justify the $15 million to the BIA? It is a winning deal. Why change it?
I dont agree with their [the countys] strong-arm tactics, Trustee Scott Schoonmaker said. The village will be impacted the most. We have to look out for our interests. If not, none of us belong up here.
There are certain aspects of this deal that are very positive, commented Mayor Gary Sommers. Once construction begins, we get $17,000 a month for 24 months. We made the deal with the management company, not the tribe. We did not know what will happen down the road.
There are aspects of this deal that need to be looked at, Sommers continued. Costs have changed. The BIA will not allow it unless everyone is satisfied. We need to move forward. We need to leave it to the BIA.
Gambling is the future for our children, Schoonmaker added. We need to support this. Write to your other officials in support of this. We will do what you want. We need your input.
With that, the citizens seemed satisfied. The majority left the meeting, but around 20 minutes later, several county officials came to discuss the issue (they were told to be there at 8, and the public comment took place before 7:30). Representing the county were District 3 Legislator Greg Goldstein, District 8 Legislator Bob Kunis, District 9 Legislator Jim Carnell Jr., and County Attorney Ira Cohen.
A lot of people have been blaming us and accusing us of trying to blow this deal, Cohen commented. We find that troubling. We have been supportive and acting to get gaming in the area. There is no reason for us to be adversarial and contentious. We support the casino. We just want to set up a reasonable dialogue. We can disagree. We may not see eye-to-eye, but we are not the bad guys.
We want to protect all of the citizens of the county, Cohen continued. We would rather no agreement than a bad agreement. We are concerned about your agreement. It does not protect the county. It may protect the village. We do not have the intention to oppose or try to defeat the project. We have to look out for the best interests of the citizens of the county.
We support this project, Carnell added. We are not here to argue with the board. This deal is not adequate for the county as a whole. There has been a lot of misrepresentation and misdirection. There has never been any government approval. That is a misnomer.
This is not personal, Rosenberg countered. We in the village feel like the red-headed stepchild. We have to protect the people of our community.
We reached out to you and the track two months ago, Goldstein remarked. You are not the red-headed stepchild. We need more dialogue and communication. This is a great project. We are not adversarial.
We need to clarify and emphasize some things, Kunis stated. Jim and I [Monticellos county representatives] stand up for the village all the time. It is unfortunate that we have no communication and dialogue with you. We are as guilty of that as you are. We want this to happen. It would be beneficial to all. If you want to know something, call us. We want to satisfy everybody.
Sommers suggested holding a public forum so the county officials could address the village residents on the issue. No clear answer was given on that.
The next night, it was discussed further at both the Town of Thompson Board meeting and the Village of Monticello Planning Board meeting.
At Thompson, Supervisor Tony Cellini addressed the issue.
I received a visit the other day from [Catskills] Robert Berman and Cliff Erhlich, Cellini commented. We discussed the project. I asked one of them and a member of the tribe to address this board publicly about the project. They were not overly receptive to that. Until they address us, we will take no action at this time.
The Planning Board accepted Catskills Environmental Assessment Form. They also gave it a negative declaration.