Thursday, March 25, 2010

Is a Shinnecock-Run Racino in the Works? by Stephen Geffon - Queens Chronicle

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Now that Aqueduct Entertainment Group has been disqualified from developing a racino at Aqueduct Race Track, the Shinnecock Indian Nation — with expected federal recognition just around the corner — may be setting its sights on the Ozone Park track or nearby Belmont Park in Elmont, LI.

Shinnecock spokeswoman Beverly Jensen said the Long Island tribe is interested in a casino, but the location isn’t set yet. “We are looking at any place and we are looking at all places, including Aqueduct and Belmont,” she said.

In October 2007 the Shinnecocks prepared an ambitious casino proposal for Aqueduct, a $1.4 billion project which included 490,000 feet of gambling space, 350 card tables, 10,500 slot machines, 12,000 employees and a 1,200-room hotel.

The Aqueduct proposal estimated a full-size casino would bring in $2.1 billion annually. The city and state would share 25 percent from the $1.5 billion generated annually by the casino’s slot machines, and added tax revenues.

The plan has been gathering dust on a shelf, according to Tom Shields, a spokesman for Michigan-based Gateway Casino Resorts, the Shinnecocks’ partner in the project.

But now with Aqueduct set to be re-bid, the tribe may just dust off their plan.

State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said he had met with representatives of the Shinnecock tribe in the summer of 2009, at which time they expressed an interest in Aqueduct and presented two plans to him. One included a casino and horse racing; the other eliminated racing entirely.

Addabbo said he does not support the Shinnecocks developing a casino at Aqueduct because, unlike the other bidders who would rent the land, the state would have to sell it to the tribe, where, as owners, they could develop it as they see fit and close the race track if they so desired.

Addabbo said that owning Aqueduct Race Track would just be a hindrance to the Shinnecocks. “They don’t want to do horse racing, they want a full-fledged casino,” Addabbo said. “Obviously, this is not what we would be looking for.”

Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said he would reserve judgment on the Shinnecocks’ racino proposal at Aqueduct. He said promises of job creation and the generation of billions of dollars annually does not necessarily translate into revitalizing the area or the surrounding community. “There are a lot of pros but there are a lot of cons,” Ulrich said. “Any decision would have to come under extensive community review.”

If Aqueduct is not a possibility, Belmont Park would appear to be a good bet for the Shinnecocks since State Sen. Minority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) supports its redevelopment.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Skelos, said the senator would like to have video lottery terminals at Belmont and see it turned into a first-class tourist destination.

According to Reif, Skelos sees no problem with Aqueduct and Belmont casinos successfully operating at the same time because they would each cater to different markets, with Aqueduct having just VLTs and Belmont featuring a full spectrum of gaming.

Addabbo agreed, saying the two venues could coexist if each offers different gaming.

But the Shinnecock’s road to developing a casino off the tribe’s reservation is laden with obstacles.

First, it is rare for the federal government to grant permission for an off-reservation casino. There is also a requirement that tribal gambling operations be built within 75 miles of reservation land.

The Shinnecock reservation is located on the east end of LI, a little more than 75 miles from Belmont and more than 85 miles from Aqueduct.

Although other tribes have opened casinos off-reservation by using “land trusts” arranged with the U.S. Department of the Interior, a Supreme Court decision in February 2009 bars tribes recognized after 1934 from entering into such trusts. Legislation is pending before Congress to overturn the court ruling.

The Shinnecocks would also have to negotiate an agreement with the state to develop anything other than the smaller video gaming facilities federally recognized tribes are entitled to operate.

In the meantime, the state’s lottery division is set to oversee the selection of another bidder for Aqueduct.

With AEG out of the running, the remaining bidders are SL Green Realty with Hard Rock International, the Peebles Corporation with MGM Mirage, Penn National Gaming and Aqueduct Gaming with partners Delaware North, Saratoga Gaming and McKissack and McKissack.