Gov. David Paterson

Gov. David Paterson

AP Photo

Paterson Pushes Deal For Catskill Casino

Full-scale casino could threaten the revenue from the slots parlor at Aqueduct

Brushing aside criticism from racino operators and New York Indian tribes, Gov. David Paterson Nov. 22 unveiled a deal to permit a Wisconsin Indian tribe build a casino in the once-flourishing Catskills resort region.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, in return for the casino on 330 acres just 90 miles from New York City, agreed to relinquish its claim for 23,000 acres of land in central New York.

The agreement for the Sullivan County casino – a region where the state and New York tribes for more than a decade have been trying to establish gambling halls – comes just weeks after Paterson attended a groundbreaking for the long-delayed casino at Aqueduct. Racing officials have said the Aqueduct casino, as well as harness track racinos at Yonkers and Monticello, will be harmed by the Stockbridge-Munsee deal.

But Paterson used the casino compact signing to announce that the racino and track at Monticello will be seeing a $100 million expansion. “We will now help them with their expansion,” Paterson said at a ceremony in the Catskills. He did not elaborate; the state is facing a $9 billion deficit, so it remains uncertain how – financially and politically – the state could provide funds to Monticello.

“We think that with some emergency assistance from us we can assist them,” Paterson said of the Monticello facility and its expansion plans.

The casino agreement also comes as the Paterson administration is hoping the Legislature will go along with a Chapter 9 bankruptcy solution for the New York City Off-Track Betting Corp., which is a state-owned entity. The Legislature returns to Albany next week for a special session, and Paterson plans to put the NYCOTB measure on the agenda; it calls for financial concessions from the racing industry and the takeover of the NYCOTB’s ADW operations by the state’s tracks.

Opposition to the Catskills Indian casino has spread – from track operators, horsemen’s groups, New York tribes, and environmental organizations – since word first surfaced last week of the plans.

The federal government for several years has rejected the once-expanding number of off-reservation Indian casinos. But Paterson, along with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, believe the Stockbridge-Munsee plan will be approved by the U.S. Department of Interior because it also features the settlement of a longstanding land claims dispute between the state and tribe. They said the tribe is getting access to the Catskills land in return for giving up – except just shy of 2 acres – its 23,000-acre land claim located nearly 150 miles away from the proposed casino site.

The governor said the $1.3 billion casino project will provide about $900 million annually in slot machine revenue-sharing proceeds to the state. Unlike the future Aqueduct casino and other racinos, the proposed facility is a full-blown casino with table games.

State officials insisted there is plenty of room for competition between the planned Catskills facility and New York racetrack-based casinos. They say the bigger threat to loss of revenues will be casinos in Atlantic City, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, the state’s attorney general, said Paterson’s proposal with the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe is on “firm legal ground.”

But the Oneida Indian Nation, which runs its own casino in Central New York and has its own land claim dispute with the state, said Cuomo should be investigating the new Catskills deal, saying it was done in secrecy and is part of a “sham settlement of a sham land claim by an out of state tribe.

“Local and state leadership should be on notice that the Nation will be seriously involved in opposing this deal at all levels,” the Oneida Nation said in a statement.

NYRA President Charles Hayward declined to comment on the casino agreement.

The Stockbridge-Munsee casino calls for a hotel, restaurants, and shops in addition to a Class III gambling facility. A 2001 state law permitting up to three Indian casinos in the Catskills – this would be the first if approved by Washington – also calls for the casino to share 25 percent of its slot machines revenue each year with the state.