Gov. David Paterson on Monday signed a land settlement with a Wisconsin tribe that could give New York state leaders something they have been trying to get for decades: a casino within day-tripping distance of the lucrative New York City market.
The deal to settle a decades-old land claim by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans in central New York's Madison County comes in exchange for state support of a tribal casino about 100 miles northwest of New York City.
The deal's ultimate approval is no sure bet. It faces federal scrutiny and likely legal challenges, and it follows of a long line of promised Catskill casinos proposals that went bust. Residents of this economically struggling area once renowned as the "Borscht Belt" greeted the proposal with a mix of hope and hard-earned skepticism.
"It's been happening for the 40 years I've been here," Jim Collins said as he left a post office here Monday. Then, with a laugh as he walked away, he said: "I've bet on it a couple of times. I've lost."
If approved, the casino could compete with ones in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Casino proponents in the Catskills hope it could bring back some glory from its tourist heyday, when the area was a prime summer destination for Jewish families from the New York City area.
Catskill casino proponents began looking to Indian tribes after efforts to amend the state constitution to legalize casino gambling fizzled. In 2008, the Bush administration's Department of Interior rejected plans for separate Catskill casinos involving the St. Regis Mohawks of northern New York and the Stockbridge-Munsee, citing the great distance between the two tribes' reservations and the casino sites.
The Stockbridge-Munsee are trying a different route, this time joining the casino deal with the land-claim settlement. Paterson says that under the deal, the tribe will end its claim to 23,000 acres in Madison County, while getting 330 acres in Sullivan County, where the tribe wants to build a casino.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer supports the deal, which could improve its chances before the Obama administration's Department of Interior.
But it could face other hurdles. By proposing the development by the Neversink River, Paterson is "virtually inviting litigation," said Mark Izeman, director of the New York Urban Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
It also could face challenges from other Indian tribes, many of which have their own land claims and casinos.
Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter on Monday criticized a deal he said was hammered out in secret and of dubious legality. He said the Oneidas, who run a successful casino in central New York, were reviewing their options.
"This isn't going to work. It's an unworkable plan, which is not uncommon with the governor of this state," Halbritter said in an interview. "There are too many issues."
A Catskills casino also would compete with state-sanctioned "racinos" featuring video lottery terminals, such as one just miles away in Monticello, another in Yonkers and the recently approved one at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.
"It would be a real long-shot under any oddsmaker's calculation," Izeman said.
The competing operations could be one of several gambling-related issues Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo will have on his plate when he takes office with the new year. The Shinnecock Indian Nation also is considering a casino on Long Island.
Cuomo wouldn't comment on Paterson's casino proposal, saying Monday "there's only one governor at a time." But Cuomo, as attorney general until Dec. 31, said Paterson is on "firm legal ground."
"We don't anticipate any legal challenges," the governor-elect said.