But even though a court-ordered ruling on the tribe’s federal recognition application—the key step to gaming rights—is due by December, and the tribe could get the federal go-ahead by mid-2010, many in the New York gaming industry say the hurdles Shinnecocks face are numerous, and significant.
At a gaming industry conference in Saratoga Springs last week, a host of industry veterans and even members of other Native American tribes from around the state said—often with wry smiles—that they’re not holding their breath for a Shinnecock casino to open. Nonetheless, the tribe and its prospects for a casino on Long Island, or in the shadow of New York City, were a popular topic of conversation.
The Shinnecocks’ casino bid and the speculation that the court settlement spawned were a main focus of the keynote speech given by John D. Sabini, chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board at the two-day New York Gaming Summit. He said that gaming prospects have seemed imminent in the past and ended up languishing for decades.
“I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that they even get federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of the Interior,” Mr. Sabini said of the Shinnecocks in his keynote speech. “There are no sure things in gaming. This involves a lot of moving parts at the federal level.”
In an interview, Mr. Sabini noted that earning federal recognition is just the first step in a complicated battle for the tribe to get rights to a casino operation. He nodded to the cautionary tales told by the leaders of three other Native American tribes—the Seneca, Oneida and St. Regis Mohawks—all of whom have had federal recognition for years, even decades, and are still fighting to get approval for casinos that they thought would be open for business years ago.
“Some newspapers said [the court settlement] would mean they have the inside track for Belmont. There’s so much between here and there,” Mr. Sabini said, of a report that the tribe had expressed interest in a gaming facility adjacent to the Nassau County horse racing venue. “[State Assembly Speaker Sheldon] Silver has been clear—he doesn’t want gaming there.”
The State Legislature has already approved gaming through the use of up to 4,500 video lottery machines, or VLTs, at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. State representatives of the areas surrounding Belmont Racetrack have also introduced proposals to allow gaming—a potential tax revenue bounty—in their backyard as well. But Mr. Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan in the State Assembly, has sworn he will never support gaming at the Belmont property.
In 2007, shortly after the state opened bidding on the Aqueduct gaming contract, the tribe proposed a $1.4 billion casino and hotel adjacent to the Queens racetrack. But at last week’s state gaming conference, Bill Murray, the deputy director of the New York Lottery, which will license any future gaming operations at the racetrack, said that the state is close to deciding on one of the seven official bidders for gaming there. The Shinnecocks are not on the list of bidders—though the development company Delaware North, which sponsored the gaming conference, is. Mr. Murray said the decision on the contract will be made in a matter of weeks, effectively eliminating the Shinnecocks, since the tribe will not receive federal recognition until 2010 at the earliest.
Shinnecock Indian Nation Tribal Trustee Fred Bess turned a bit of the naysayers’ own warnings back on them, though, with regard to the Aqueduct proposal.
“Things take a long time to happen,” he said when asked if Aqueduct was off the tribe’s radar because of the timeline Mr. Murray suggested. “Once we take care of our federal recognition application, we’ll see where things stand.”
This is the first part of a three-part series on the Shinnecock Indian Nation and its possible future in the gaming industry.