Gov. Gives Nod to County Casino
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO February 20, 2007 Word spread like wildfire across Sullivan County yesterday morning.
“The casino’s been approved.”
Unlike so many related rumors, this one turned out to be right.
Hours before Governor Eliot Spitzer’s press office officially confirmed the news, Sullivan County Legislature Chair Chris Cunningham told the Democrat he had just received word from the state that, per Spitzer’s campaign promise, approval had arrived for the St. Regis Mohawk’s proposed 800,000-square-foot, $600 million casino at Monticello Raceway.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Cunningham, who just happened to answer the state’s phone call yesterday at the otherwise-closed county government center.
Cunningham anticipated the County Legislature soon forwarding a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in support of the project.
Kempthorne is indeed the man with whom all casino hopes now lie, as he will determine whether or not to take 30 acres of raceway land into trust for the use of the Mohawks as sovereign territory.
There’s also the matter of legal wrangling between the tribe and various anti-casino forces, but for now the Mohawks joined Cunningham in relief that the state government has given the green light.
“We commend Governor Spitzer’s decisive action and commitment to our Sullivan County casino project which we believe will generate tremendous opportunities in and around the Catskills region,” wrote the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. “We rejoice in the prospects this important project presents for the future of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the people of Sullivan County, and New Yorkers across the state.”
The governor himself sounded equally optimistic.
“This agreement creates an economic partnership between the Mohawks and the people of New York,” Spitzer said in a press release yesterday. “By working together, we can establish a premier gaming facility that will produce significant revenues for the tribe and state and help spark a resurgence of the Catskills region.”
That agreement is actually a reworking of the original gaming compact the state had with the Mohawk Tribe allowing it to build and operate a casino at the raceway.
The compact stipulates that the state will get 20 percent of casino revenues from slot machines the first two years, 23 percent the next two years, and 25 percent every year thereafter.
It also requires the Mohawks to comply with applicable tax, labor and health laws.
And like the County Legislature, the state and the tribe are urging Secretary Kempthorne to take raceway land into trust as soon as possible.
If and when that happens, construction of the closest land-based casino to New York City could begin at anytime.
Let the Lawsuits Begin . . .
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO A war of words will shortly become a legal battle focusing once again on the proposed Monticello Raceway casino.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sullivan County Farm Bureau, the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, and Orange Environment, Inc. have joined forces to ask the U.S. District Court in Manhattan to halt the project.
“Sullivan County citizens deserve a complete examination of how this massive casino development will affect their daily lives,” said NRDC New York Legislative Director Richard Schrader.
The groups contend that the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has failed to protect local interests by not requiring the St. Regis Mohawks and their operating partner, Empire Resorts, to file a full environmental impact statement.
In December, the BIA granted approval for the Monticello casino based on an environmental assessment, which does not require as thorough an environmental review.
The apparent justification, according to the Mohawks and other sources, is that the tribe already did much of the environmental studies when it first proposed a casino at the raceway in the late 1990s. Early in the 21st century, it switched the site to Kutsher’s Sports Academy, but in 2005, the Mohawks came back to the raceway.
The tribe also said in a prepared statement that the Village of Monticello put the project through the SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) process.
But the NRDC and its lawsuit partners are convinced those studies are incomplete and based on old, inaccurate data.
“In order to protect the agricultural industry, which is so important to the character and identity of the Catskills, we need an environmental review that addresses very basic concerns about air pollution, traffic jams and quality-of-life issues that will affect the community,” stated Wes Gillingham of the Sullivan County Farm Bureau. “It is not asking too much. It is simply asking that government obey the law.”
The Mohawks and Empire said this week that they have complied with the law in every respect. Tribal leaders also felt these groups’ complaints are not shared by the majority of area residents and called the suit an effort to “sabotage a much-needed economic boost.”
“This site was specifically recommended as the preferred build alternative because it is the best site for this project and one that will preserve and protect treasured green spaces in Sullivan County,” said Empire Resorts President David Hanlon.
Nevertheless, the issue must now wend its way through federal court, even as Governor Eliot Spitzer gave his assent and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne considers his role in the project: to take approximately 30 acres of raceway property into trust for the Mohawks.