By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO August 5, 2003 In the last two weeks, there has been a flurry of activity regarding local casino gaming.
Developments have taken place on all fronts, and there are some changes regarding the three proposed Sullivan County Indian gaming projects: the St. Regis Mohawk/Park Place Entertainment Casino at Kutshers Sports Academy, the Stockbridge-Munsee/Trading Cove International casino on Bridgeville Road, and the Cayuga Nation/Empire Resorts Casino at Monticello Raceway.
All three projects currently have applications pending with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for land-to-trust applications.
The flurry started on Thursday, July 17 when New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Teresi ruled that the legislation allowing Indian casinos was constitutional. That legislation calls for six casinos (three in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls area and three in Sullivan and/or Ulster counties), Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) at state racetracks (including Monticello Raceway), and inclusion in the Powerball lottery.
The attorney for the opposition, Cornelius Murray, filed an appeal Monday, July 21.
Also, a federal judge ruled Monday to lift an eight-year-old stay in the Stockbridge-Munsee land claim against New York. This allows the tribe to move forward and try to claim 23,000 acres in upstate New York. There will not be a mediator.
Empire Resorts announced Wednesday that they appointed six new members to their board. Effective August 5, the new members are David Matheson (chairman), David Hanlon (vice chairman), John Sharpe, Arthur Sonnenblick, Joseph Bernstein and Ralph Bernstein. Remaining on the board are Robert Berman (CEO), Paul deBary, Jay Holt, and Morad Tahbaz (president).
Our new board members are all prominent business leaders in the Native American community, the gaming industry, hospitality, finance and land development, Berman said in a press release. These distinguished businessmen will help our company achieve its business plan of launching 1,800 video lottery terminals at the Monticello Raceway in the first quarter of 2004, in association with the New York State Lottery. The new board will lead the company in its efforts to build and manage a $500,000,000 Native American casino on land adjoining the Monticello Raceway with the Cayuga Nation of New York. The tremendous experience of these leaders will serve as a strong foundation for the future growth and development of the company.
I am particularly pleased to announce that one of Native Americas most highly regarded leaders, David Matheson, a former Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs, United States Department of the Interior, has agreed to assume the post of chairman of the board, and that a distinguished gaming industry executive, David Hanlon, has agreed to serve as vice chairman, Berman continued. Mr. Matheson is highly respected by his peers in the Native American community, as well as by regulators and the gaming industry. Mr. Hanlon similarly brings to us his vast experience in the gaming industry that very few other gaming industry executives can match.
Last month, the Mohawks elected new tribal leaders, and they visited Sullivan County Tuesday to introduce themselves and begin discussions with local officials. At Kutshers in Monticello this week were Tribal Chief Barbara Lazore, Tribal Chief James Ransom, Tribal Chief Margaret Terrance, Sub-Chief Emily Lauzon, and Sub-Chief Andrew Jacobs.
Also, Park Place Entertainment representative Chuck Miller was on hand to help the chiefs get acclimated. Miller stated that, once the board approves, Park Place will change its name to Caesars Resorts International, effective January 1.
All of these matters and then some were discussed in a special meeting of the Sullivan County Legislatures Executive Committee on Wednesday Morning. Joining the committee were the countys Indian gaming attorney, John Jacobson, and environmental attorney Dan Ruzow.
Committee Chair Leni Binder turned the meeting over to County Attorney Ira Cohen, who first addressed the ongoing talks the county has had with the Cayuga Nation. The tolling agreement was extended, again, until August 11. Cohen said the purpose of the meeting was to update the Legislature on the talks and there was a need to make some important decisions.
Cohen also announced that, due to the death of a tribal elder, there will be no communication with the tribe for a few days. However, some decisions need to be made in what direction to head.
There will be phone conversations [with the tribes attorneys], Cohen commented. We want to have a meeting next week. We will continue and determine where to go.
Cohen turned the meeting over to Jacobson to offer his insights. Jacobson has been trying to confirm from the BIA that they want federal Environmental Impact Statements (EIS).
This affects more than just Sullivan County it is a national issue, Jacobson stated. An informed source with the Department of the Interior [which oversees the BIA] said that the chances are 99 percent that an EIS will be required. The Mohawks have begun the process of converting their state study to a federal document. They will look at it on a case-by-case basis. However, we were told that if there is no EIS and there is a lawsuit, the Justice Department will not defend it. That strikes me as interesting.
The size of the Catskills projects are way above average, Jacobson continued. Same with the impacts.
Jacobson went on to say that that Secretary of the Interior, with the concurrence of the governor of New York State, must find that the project is not detrimental to the surrounding community.
Jacobson then advised the Legislature on what their next move should be.
To assist in the process, you should start to plan the process to use the funds should the projects take place, Jacobson said. It is difficult to make the municipalities whole in the context of what will be paid. The impacts are significant. You have to begin the planning process. Start to think of mechanisms you cant budget it. It will be helpful.
District 4 Legislator Don Trotta asked for the definition of detrimental.
It has not been clearly defined, Jacobson responded. You have to use the common-sense definition.
That drew laughs from those present.
We do not want the taxpayers to suffer, Cohen commented.
Cohen then referenced an article in that days New York Times. The article reviewed the Turning Stone Casino in Oneida County ten years after its creation. Officials are quoted as saying that they made mistakes, taxes are going up, and they wished they had handled things the way Sullivan County is handling them.
We need to move forward with the planning process, remarked District 5 Legislator Rodney Gaebel. We now have to move forward. To cover past territory would not be productive. We have to move forward in a planning mode. We wont attach dollars to the impacts, but we have to lay the groundwork if and when the casino doors open.
Jacobson reviewed the meeting the county officials had with the Mohawk tribe Tuesday. The two sides had dinner and a get-to-know-you session at Kutshers that night. He reported that it went well and that they were moving in the right direction.
It was asked, since rumors abound, about the possibility of the Mohawks trying to renegotiate the $15 million agreement the county has with them. Jacobson replied he saw no indication of that. Tribal leaders seemed friendly, cooperative, and wanted to move forward, he reported.
This is a very slow process. It will not happen tomorrow, Jacobson cautioned, however. Sullivan County is moving forward slowly. We have agreements on two projects. There may be others down the road. This will be a model for the rest of the country. Nowhere else is there three land-to-trust applications by three different tribes with such enormous projects.
After the update, the committee went into executive session to discuss the negotiations and possible litigation. More updates are expected in the coming weeks.