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Travel Plaza, Hotel on the Horizon

Wed, 08/25/2021 - 17:23

With economic development and sustainability as the goal, members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation have voted in support of two major projects: a resort and hotel slated for the nation's Westwoods property south of the highway in Hampton Bays, and a travel plaza and gas station on land it owns nearby on the westbound side of Sunrise Highway.

The resort and hotel, with space for events and amenities such as restaurants, retail, and a spa, is still in conceptual stages, but the travel plaza and gas station is much further along in the process.

Bryan Polite, the Shinnecock Nation's chairman and a managing director of the latter project, said the tribe is "full-steam ahead" on it. It is proposed at 15,000 square feet with a covered fueling area, restrooms, food vendors, a retail shop, and information kiosk. He likened the project to a New York State Thruway-style rest stop.

"We've been working really hard to bring this to fruition, and this vote was the last vote that we needed. . . . We have spoken with and gotten support from local government officials," Mr. Polite said in an interview last week.

Native American tribes with federal recognition — such as the Shinnecock — can sell gasoline without charging taxes, which means locals and visitors alike will have access to cheaper fuel. Mr. Polite expects it to be "a big draw," and State Assemblyman Fred. W. Thiele Jr. said he supports the project and will work with the tribe and New York State Department of Transportation on the idea of an access road to the travel plaza from Sunrise Highway.

"I've complained about East End gas prices, and have sponsored legislation on that, for a long time," Mr. Thiele said. "I'm generally and conceptually supportive, but there are a lot of details and specifics that need to be worked out, and I look forward to engaging in dialogue on this."

Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman also said he is generally supportive of the project, but wants to see more details. Originally there was an overnight rest area for truckers, but after the town objected, that part of the plan was abandoned.

"I think they recognize the path forward should not be an adversarial one -- it should be a cooperative one," he said.

On the hotel and resort, Taobi Silva, a tribal member who is a small-business owner and president of Shinnecock Sovereign Holdings, a federally-chartered corporation that was formed to oversee certain developments, said it is proposed at approximately 200 rooms on 20 waterfront acres. It could cost as much as $250 million, he said.

It is still in the conceptual phase because "we still have to do the due diligence to make sure the area can support it," Mr. Silva said. "We're trying to be considerate to our neighbors, and let's say if the cost to run it outweighs the benefit, we're not going to do it."

"There are a number of different goals here," he said, "but one of the primary ones is economic self-sufficiency. We sort of harp on that one. Shinnecock has been self-sufficient for 400 years, but this is the evolution of that — what does it look like in 2021? That's going to be the healthiest vision for us — not being dependent on subsidies for health, welfare, and education."

The tribe had also proposed a casino on its reservation, which Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Thiele both said they do not support. Two electronic billboards, each some 60 feet tall on Sunrise Highway, have begun generating advertising revenue for the Shinnecocks after they prevailed in litigation that was brought by the town and the state in an attempt to halt the billboards' construction. The town and the Peconic Land Trust recently spent $5.6 million to buy Sugar Loaf Hill, a sacred burial ground that had been developed into a residential property, and return it to the tribe.

Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Thiele both said the hotel and resort have the potential to positively impact the community, but that they are eager to see the details. "Unlike casino gaming, I think this is more appropriate and is something that could fill a need on the East End," Mr. Thiele said, "but the specifics are really important to ensure that it is consistent with the character of the East End and addresses environmental issues. Before I can fully endorse it, I would have to see the specifics, and for a project of this size, an environmental impact statement is necessary."

Mr. Polite said the two new projects are ambitious but hold great potential.

"It's always a great time to be a Shinnecock, but it's an exciting time to be a Shinnecock," he said. "We're living in a time when we're getting some of our ancestral lands back and taking a hold of our economic future. It's challenging, but that's the story of Shinnecock — challenges, but perseverance."

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