On Election Day, New York State voters gave the thumbs-up to the state to proceed with plans for the sanctioned development of up to seven casinos owned by private companies.
Where that shift, and a variety of other factors, leaves the Shinnecock Indian Nation and its once grand plans for three Las Vegas-style gaming venues scattered across Long Island and around New York City is unclear.
Already stumbling over internal strife and facing harsh questions about their contracts and years of dealings with a Detroit-based casino development company, the future prospects of a Shinnecock-owned casino have been cast in doubt by many who have watched the tribal effort evolve over the last dozen years.
The November 5 vote creates the prospect of private developers who have the means getting the option to open casinos in the state, without needing to work with Native American tribes to do so. As a result, there are doubts as to whether the tribe’s private partners for the last decade, Gateway Casino Resorts, will still be interested in continuing to bankroll the tribe and the legal fees for the numerous legal and public relations hurdles that the tribe would have to get over before it could open a casino.
There are also questions about the weakened financial potential of a tribal casino, with the competition of seven guaranteed casinos now expected to be built in New York State over the next decade and a half.
“The passage of the amendment obviously provides additional competition, as far as a casino goes, and I think that definitely makes the road more difficult for them,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who once penned a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo last year pleading with him to meet with the tribe to discuss its casino aspirations in light of the coming state constitutional amendment. “Those that wish to invest in casinos in New York don’t need an Indian nation to partner with anymore. Why would you partner with someone if you can do it yourself?”
The tribe may still enjoy a geographical advantage, for a little while, if its plans still target a Long Island site. Four of the casinos approved in the constitutional amendment, the ones to be built first, will be restricted to upstate counties. The other three, which could be built anywhere in the state, including around New York City, will not be on the drawing board for at least seven years.
For most of the last 10 years, the Shinnecocks and Gateway dedicated much of their efforts to finding a location for a casino in central Long Island or on the outskirts of New York City. Were the tribe able to identify a suitable location in Nassau or Suffolk county and muster a casino proposal, it could still likely corner the Long Island market.
“If there was already a casino on Long Island, it would make it much less appealing to a private group to build a similar facility there as well,” a state official, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said. “The market is probably large enough to support two facilities, actually … but there might be more appeal in looking at something in Queens or Westchester and having no competition.”
Some have doubted whether Governor Cuomo would be eager to work with the tribe on drafting a compact with the state that would allow them to open a casino, as required by federal Indian gaming regulations. In recent years, some have suggested that the governor was dragging his feet on meeting with the tribe or their representatives because he had the private gambling amendment in mind early on.
“It’s a completely separate issue,” said Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor’s office, dismissing the notion that a Shinnecock casino would be affected by the constitutional amendment or would be held up by the governor’s office. “All the tribes that have casinos have compacts with the state.”
Indeed, some of those who have worked with the Shinnecocks on their casino effort in recent years said that the governor’s office was likely unwilling to have formal discussions with the tribe because it knew that an actual development was far down the road.
“I think the governor probably sensed the issues internally and with the developer,” said Suffolk County Legislator Wayne Horsley, who chaired a county commission that sought to help the tribe identify a suitable location for a casino in Suffolk County. The two entities worked together for more than three years and looked at a number of large parcels the tribe could potentially purchase. But Mr. Horsley said the tribal leaders suffered from a vague and often changing direction, as motivations and the leadership itself changed within the tribe.
“Frankly, they had difficulty getting their … I hesitate to say “act together,” but … they had difficulty finalizing their plans,” Mr. Horsley said. “The frustrating thing on my part was, we were looking to bring something home for Suffolk County, but then they wanted to put something at the [Nassau] coliseum, and then they moved from the coliseum to Belmont [Race Track], and they would talk about Suffolk as a second casino, and it was obviously years away. And everything would change when the leadership changed.”
Those changes in leadership are what ultimately put the tribe’s casino plans on the shelf, where it apparently remains today.
The ouster of two Tribal Trustees and two Gaming Authority members in the summer of 2012 set off a internecine war of accusations and a power struggle that spurred Gateway to halt the $250,000 monthly payments it had been making to the tribe for a decade as part of its casino partnership agreement. Last May, the FBI raided and seized records from its casino development team’s offices. Those offices were destroyed in a fire last month that investigators say appeared to have been intentionally set. In September, the tribe lost a lawsuit seen as a key negotiating tool to securing land for a future casino.
Lance Gumbs, long the face of the tribe’s casino effort, said that almost regardless of the state constitutional amendment and the struggles with Gateway, the tribe also faces a number of higher hurdles to clear before it could seriously pursue a casino effort.
Mr. Gumbs, who was recently reappointed to the National Congress of American Indians, said that two court cases in recent years are effectively blocking the tribe from any sort of meaningful movement toward a major casino development. Most imposing on the Shinnecock’s plans is a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring that only tribes recognized prior to 1935 may put land into a federal trust, a common step taken by tribes seeking to build a casino on land acquired specifically for development and not part of their federal reservation.
Mr. Gumbs and other tribal representatives have been lobbying Congress for action that could override the court’s findings, a critical step for the Shinnecocks.
Tribal officials have refused to communicate, in any way about almost any subject, with The Press since a new panel of Tribal Trustees was elected last April. The tribe is poised to hold a vote next month to impanel a new seven-member executive council, replacing the three-member Tribal Trustees as the highest authority on the reservation.
“There are these major national issues that affect what we can do on a local level, and until those things are figured out, the local stuff does matter, really,” Mr. Gumbs said recently. “I don’t see [the constitutional amendment] as leaving us in any particular situation—we still have the right to do gaming. Our biggest issue is land.”