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Shinnecocks' Casino Plans Come Into Focus

Wed, 02/17/2021 - 10:09
A rendering of the Shinnecock Casino Hamptons.
Shinnecock Indian Nation

The Shinnecock Indian Nation formally announced its plan to build a casino on its territory yesterday, saying such a facility would bring with it enough financial opportunity "to lift our members from adversity."

"Our ancestral lands were taken from us many years ago and New York State has refused to meet with us regarding stolen land claims that were filed over many decades," the Shinnecock Council of Trustees said in a statement. "We have tried to resolve these issues over the last decade by proposing to find more suitable locations on Long Island, but were rebuffed. We have waited long enough and have decided to proceed here on our territory."

Construction of the 76,000-square-foot Shinnecock Casino Hamptons, with financial backing of Tri State Partners, a New York City investment firm, is expected to start this summer, the council reported. The casino is expected to take up to 24 months to build.

The plans include a bingo parlor, 1,000 video-lottery games, and 30 Texas Hold 'Em table games. Dining establishments and "appropriate, right-sized" entertainment venues are also on the table.

"Over the past several years we have witnessed the suffering of the Shinnecock Nation and also seen the opportunity to lift their people from the poverty they currently live in," Jack Morris, a managing member of Tri State Partners, said in a statement. "This will be a property Long Island residents will enjoy visiting, while enabling the Shinnecock Nation to take advantage of opportunities other members of Native American nations have harnessed."

The Shinnecocks got the go-ahead last summer from the National Indian Gaming Commission, aided in part by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and in December the Shinnecock tribal members voted overwhelmingly in favor of moving forward with an economic development zone on their reservation for the casino. The approval is for a Class II casino. According to the New York State Gaming Commission, a Class II casino can offer Bingo and games like it, as well as "non-banking card games," but the rules prohibit "electronic or electromechanical facsimiles of any game of chance or slot machine of any kind." The commission also says Class II gaming falls under "tribal jurisdiction, subject to the provisions of [the] Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and oversight of the National Indian Gaming Commission. States are not permitted to regulate any Class II gaming activity."

Class I casinos can offer only "social games" played for prizes of minimal value, as well as traditional tribal games. Class III casinos are able to offer slot machines and table games such as blackjack, roulette, and craps. Three Native American tribes in New York State operate Class III casinos. They are the Seneca Nation of Indians, the Oneida Indian Nation, and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. Bryan Polite, chairman of the Shinnecock Tribal Council, said there are no plans now for a Class III facility on the Shinnecock territory.

The tribal council said its research has shown that a Class II casino "will be a boost for tourism here on the eastern end of Long Island. And while the summer months will be the busiest months of the year for us, working with Tri State we will attract visitors during the rest of the year as well."

The Nation also indicated it wants to explore building hotels, possibly acquiring off-territory properties, and other casinos.
"At a time when we see our country recognizing the rights of all of its citizens, we hope this extends to some of New York's first inhabitants, the members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation," the tribal council said.

Mr. Polite said during a press conference yesterday that the Shinnecocks "recognize there are many who are concerned about the nation's economic desires, but if we work together we will achieve great things. . . . We ask the people of this great state to come forward and work with us to put away the ghosts of the past."

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman issued a statement in opposition to the casino plan. "Although I respect the sovereignty of the Shinnecock Nation when it comes to development on the reservation property, I cannot think of a worse location to build a casino," he said. "Montauk Highway, where the casino is being proposed, is already backed up in the morning and in the afternoon with traffic. I also have significant concerns regarding the environmental sensitivity of this location. A large gaming facility at this location would have devastating impacts on the region. A more appropriate site must be found."

Mr. Polite said the casino would create many year-round local jobs, and that 30 to 40 percent of those would likely be reserved for Shinnecock Nation members. He declined to discuss how much revenue the casino could bring in and how much construction would cost.

The casino announcement comes on the heels of the completion of the second of the tribe's two 61-foot-tall electronic billboards, which it refers to as monuments, on historical aboriginal land on either side of Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays.

Mr. Polite said the sign was illuminated last Thursday afternoon, though with little fanfare because the Shinnecock community is in deep mourning over the loss last week of two of its members, Edward Gumbs and Wayne Crippen.

The Shinnecocks' own enterprise fund has finally started to accrue revenue from the first electronic sign, Mr. Polite said. Proceeds go toward social programs such as day care and utility assistance, along with public works and environmental initiatives. Mr. Polite said the Shinnecock Nation has about 1,600 members worldwide; about half live on the 900-acre reservation. The total population of the reservation, including non-Shinnecock spouses and some members' stepchildren, is about 1,000 people, he said.

"Completing these projects is more than economics for us. It's cultural pride," Mr. Polite said. "We can accomplish things even though we are faced with obstacles that precluded us from doing these things in years past. People are prideful and happy that we are trying to move the Nation forward and moving toward economic sustainability."

Construction of the second sign took only a couple of weeks and proceeded despite a stop-work order issued by the State Department of Transportation that threatened a fine of $1,000 per day that work continued, plus $1,000 per day for the first billboard. The D.O.T. has maintained that the billboards stand upon a state right of way, and plans to pursue "legal remedies," according to Joseph Morrissey, a state D.O.T. spokesman.

"The billboards are located on the state's right of way," he said in an email this week. "The construction of these structures is in direct violation of federal and state law — jeopardizing eligibility for federal funding to maintain and renew this section of the highway — and poses an imminent health and safety risk to the public, as no engineering work was performed and no protection from motorists striking the signs is in place."

In May of 2020, a State Supreme Court justice rejected the state's request for a preliminary injunction to have the first sign removed.

"All of the accusations they have made have already been litigated and been denied," Mr. Polite said of the D.O.T. "The Nation has always, and still maintains, that we have authority over our own sovereign lands and the D.O.T. lacks authority. The court reiterated our position about sovereignty over the lands."

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. has said while he does not support a new gaming facility and feels the two highway signs are "obtrusive and out of character with the community," the state is at fault for not working with the Shinnecock Nation on the issue of economic development.

"The failure of state agencies to constructively engage the Shinnecock Nation regarding economic development has resulted in the current conflict and controversy that is counterproductive," Mr. Thiele said on Tuesday. "I urge the governor and state agencies to engage in discussions with the Shinnecocks to resolve these issues."

Among the first images that appeared on the new billboard were a series of messages raising awareness of Black History Month and a public service announcement from the musician Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, in support of the Shinnecocks' sovereignty.

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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