Dan Hust | Democrat
CONGRESSMAN MAURICE HINCHEY, left, and Assistant U.S. Secretary of the Interior Larry EchoHawk, center, listen as Cappelli Enterprises Vice President Joe Apicella promotes the site of the former Concord Hotel behind them as a prime location for a Native American-run casino, possibly with the Seneca Nation of Indians.
Casino decision maker gets earful on listening tour
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Assistant U.S. Secretary of the Interior Larry EchoHawk’s visit drew a range of heavyweight political figures on Wednesday.
Congressman Maurice Hinchey had set up the tour of potential casino sites and opinions in Sullivan County, and he was joined at a press conference by U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.
Governor David Paterson sent one of his top casino advisors, David Rose, while the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sent its administrative team and even fielded a phone call from board member Bobby Kennedy Jr.
NYS Senator John Bonacic and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther also personally attended, along with other local officials and the leaders of the tribal councils and their business partners seeking to open three Native American casinos around Monticello.
EchoHawk, who is also the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and his boss, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, hold the power to approve or deny such off-reservation casinos.
He and his entourage spent much of Wednesday behind closed doors speaking first with opponents of the casinos and then with proponents.
Lunch and a press conference were the only interruptions, and the day ended with a tour of the Concord redevelopment site (which Cappelli Enterprises Vice President Joe Apicella said must have a casino to be competitive), Monticello Casino and Raceway, and the 333 acres and 63 acres of Bridgeville land owned by the Stockbridge-Munsees and the Senecas, respectively.
(The Senecas also reportedly took a side trip to discuss potentials with Mark Kutsher of Kutsher’s Resort.)
EchoHawk, whose brother is employed by the Stockbridge-Munsees, skipped the last part of the tour, citing a conflict of interest.
And he took pains not to lead his audience to any conclusions.
“This is simply for me a fact-finding listening opportunity,” he told the crowd at the press conference. “I am not able to answer specific questions about the merits of the proposals ... [and] I will be very guarded in my comments because I am a decision-maker.”
He did promise that the preceding administration’s clampdown on off-reservation gaming would be re-evaluated.
“That process is under way,” he said, “... but it has some way to go. We will be taking a look in a very broad way at gaming across the board.”
That day, however, he got an up-close look at the issues surrounding casinos in Sullivan County.
The first meeting of the day was an invitation-only one with representatives of anti-casino groups, including the NRDC, Catskill Mountainkeeper, the Open Space Institute, Casino-Free Sullivan County, the Basha Kill Area Association, the Sierra Club, Theodore Gordon Fly Fishers, Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development (SASD), Center for Discovery, Orange Environmental, and the Adirondack Mountain Club.
About half of those who expressed concerns about the environmental and social impacts of casinos were residents of Sullivan County, but all had an interest in preserving its world-renowned natural resources.
“We think it [gaming] is an inappropriate form of economic development here, and we don’t need it,” said Dick Riseling of Callicoon Center, speaking on behalf of SASD’s board. “We’re competing for a very different vision for Sullivan County.”
“I think he [EchoHawk] got the message that there are a lot of people in Sullivan County who don’t want three casinos,” said Catskill Mountainkeeper Program Director Wes Gillingham, a Youngsville farmer. “I think it wasn’t any one message it was a strong diversity of messages.”
Gillingham and Riseling, for example, touched on alternative green industries that promise many jobs and a low environmental impact.
Kennedy spoke about impacts on the Neversink River and the NYC watershed (though none of these projects would be located in the area that serves as NYC’s drinking water supply).
And NRDC senior staff attorney Mark Izeman, accompanied by Roscoe native and NRDC founder John Adams, focused on preserving the natural beauty of the area.
“The Catskills is an exceptional national treasure, an amazing resource near New York City,” Izeman explained.
Troubled by the Bush Administration’s efforts to bypass certain environmental reviews for casinos, Izeman said the NRDC is pushing for the new federal administration to make that process more stringent.
Izeman said the NRDC supports tribal rights in this matter.
“The issue is the location [of the casinos in Sullivan County],” he explained, adding that restoring local main streets, supporting Bethel Woods and the Center for Discovery, and perhaps even building a campus of the New School should be higher local priorities than casinos.
Riseling and Gillingham felt their concerns were truly heard.
“I think it was splendid,” said Riseling. “It establishes the basis for a much more serious conversation with everybody.”
“I think it was incredible that the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs is taking the time to do this around the country,” noted Gillingham. “It says a lot that someone in his position is getting ‘on the ground.’
“This is the best opportunity we’ve had so far to make our case to the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” he concluded.
Though they acknowledged there’s no guarantee of anything yet, the three men expressed optimism that EchoHawk and company would ensure no casinos are built in Sullivan County.
Not surprisingly, representatives of the pro-casino side thought just the opposite.
“I think it’s a great sign he [EchoHawk] came here,” remarked Tim McCausland, president of the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development.
“I thought it was extremely productive,” said Sullivan County Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis. “... We’ve put together a model for this to be successful, and I think we showed that.”
“I got positive feedback [from EchoHawk],” noted Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini, who favors starting with just one casino. “I really think the secretary got to see what our community looks like.”
Cellini ensured that, in fact, taking the tour bus down Monticello’s Broadway, under heavy reconstruction.
“You come up here, and it’s like a ghost town,” he observed.
He was also present at the closed-door meeting with proponents, which like the opponents meeting featured an even split of speakers from and outside of Sullivan County, including representatives from the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce, Hudson Valley Building Trades Council, SC Visitors Association, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, Seneca Nation of Indians and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office.
Cellini even managed to sit in on the opponents meeting, noting firsthand the competing interests.
“But it’s after the fact what they’re asking for,” he said of the anti-casino groups. “These tribes have done their environmentals. They’ve gone through the process.”
And, he said, the casinos will be clustered in an already populated area of the county.
As for Route 17 traffic congestion concerns raised by Orange Environmental, Cellini quipped, “Maybe they should close Woodbury Common and West Point. We have to travel to New York City, too!”
“We have to make sure there’s no harmful effects on the environment,” acknowledged McCausland, echoing a thought shared by Schumer and Hinchey.
McCausland, in fact, is good friends with John Adams, the founder of NRDC, and has “the highest regard” for him.
But also in tune with the Congressmen McCausland reiterated that the county has long been a tourism mecca, and along with that industry comes desperately needed jobs.
“We need to get back to that,” he said. “I think our testimony showed that we have the support, the infrastructure and the tools the tribes need to make a go of it.”
Rouis agreed, feeling that welcoming casinos and preserving the environment need not be mutually exclusive.
“We’re not looking to do this at the expense of the environment,” he explained.
He, too, stayed away from predicting the outcome of EchoHawk’s visit, but he was glad the top federal official showed up.
“When you can see and touch and feel,” said Rouis, “it’s a little different from when you do it 100 miles away.”