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Mohawks give nod to Catskills casino

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — February 2, 2010 — Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini said he’d be willing to work with the St. Regis Mohawks on a local casino if they ever changed their minds.
On Saturday, they did.
Though results have yet to be officially certified, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council announced on Sunday that 538 tribal members voted to approve pursuing an off-reservation casino in the Catskills.
Those against totalled 371, with 27 ballots voided.
Saturday’s vote was a major reversal of a November vote on the exact same issue, which generated 178 “no” votes compared to 140 “yes” votes.
“I think they realized how important it is to their tribe,” Cellini mused yesterday. “It’s as important to them as it is to us.”
The tribal council’s public information director, David Staddon, said heavy campaigning, both for and against, preceded Saturday’s vote, which in part led to the large turnout.
“It’s certainly a healthy reflection of the governmental process in the community,” he explained.
He hadn’t heard of any challenges to the vote as of yesterday, and in five days, the results will be certified.
This latest approval could put the Mohawks back on track with Empire Resorts to construct and operate a casino on the grounds of Monticello Raceway, but Staddon said no formal discussions have been held.
The Mohawks are not tied to anyone currently, though Staddon acknowledged that Empire remains the top choice, especially with its land and recent capital investment from a major Asian conglomerate.
“They seem to be the most likely candidates,” he affirmed.
Staddon, however, added that the design of a Catskills casino has been scaled back from initial projects of $500-$600 million.
“The property, at least initially, is not going to be in that kind of price range,” he said, pointing out the economic struggles of similar Indian-owned casinos like Foxwoods in Connecticut.
Instead, the Mohawks now plan to build in phases, said Staddon.
But there’s a larger hurdle than construction: the U.S. Department of the Interior has yet to change the Bush Administration’s stance that gaming at locations far away from tribal reservations is not permissible.
Federal officials have indicated for months that current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is considering reversing that ruling, but as of press time yesterday, no change has been made.
And until that happens, tribes like the Mohawks, Senecas and Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans – all of whom have an interest in building casinos around Monticello, even though their reservations are hundreds of miles away – cannot move forward.
“We’re Indians,” Staddon quipped. “We’re used to slow promises.”

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