A Long Island Indian tribe with backing from deep-pocketed investors and high-powered lobbyists cleared a major hurdle this week toward federal recognition — the key for any tribe seeking permission to open a casino.
But the Shinnecocks still face daunting obstacles before they can start the roulette wheels spinning anywhere but on their tiny strip of seaside territory in the Hamptons.
Local elected officials and tribal leaders agree the summer playground for the rich and famous would make a lousy location for a casino.
"I don't feel the type of facility we're envisioning would be right for eastern Long Island," said Fred Bess, a Shinnecock trustee leading the tribe's casino effort. He and others noted that existing traffic nightmares — visitors must navigate a narrow highway into Southampton and points east — and other quality-of-life issues would not be conducive to attracting gamblers.
U.S. Rep. Timothy Bishop, whose district includes the Shinnecocks' 1.9-square-mile reservation, and local elected officials also oppose gambling on the reservation.
Bess said the tribe would like to go elsewhere, but that "everything is negotiable." He estimated it would take 18 months to build a casino, once permanent federal regulation is approved — possibly by next spring — and other regulatory approvals are obtained.
Tribal leaders have a pending lawsuit in which they are laying claim to more Hamptons land, but have expressed a willingness to negotiate a settlement. Off-reservation possibilities include a planned resort in Calverton in Suffolk County, the Belmont Park horse track in neighboring Nassau County, Aqueduct Raceway in Queens or as far north as the Catskills.
A state senator has written to Gov. David Paterson, suggesting a meeting among Shinnecock leaders and state and local officials to discuss the suitability of Belmont Park. The racetrack just outside New York City is accessible by several major highways and has a Long Island Rail Road station. In 2007, the tribe discussed a possible casino at Aqueduct in Queens, but later dropped the plan.
A leading expert on gambling, however, said the odds are stacked against a casino off reservation land.
Bennett Liebman, head of Albany Law School's racing and gaming law program, said any land designated for a casino off the Shinnecock reservation would have to be taken into trust by the federal government. Only four off-reservation casinos have ever been approved, and none since the 1990s, said Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Another obstacle is a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that said tribes recognized after the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act are prohibited from having off-reservation land placed into trust, Liebman said. There also is a federal requirement that an Indian casino be located within 75 miles of the reservation, so that tribal members can work there, Liebman said.
Bess is undaunted.
"I believe there are provisions set aside for newly recognized tribes that will address this," he said.
The Shinnecocks first applied for federal recognition in 1978, but the complicated process of authenticating ancestral records and other historic documents wallowed for many years. The effort intensified in 2003, when tribal leaders were told that federal recognition was required for any tribe wishing to operate a gambling facility.
Although most Shinnecocks live in modest homes on the seaside reservation, they have some powerful people backing them.
Detroit-based Gateway Casino Resorts has backed the tribe's effort financially. The company is run by Marian Ilitch, the matriarch of a business empire that includes the Little Caesar's pizza chain, hockey's Detroit Red Wings and baseball's Detroit Tigers.
Tom Shields, a spokesman for Gateway, declined to comment. He noted the federal recognition approval was a preliminary ruling and the tribe still must await a final ruling sometime next year.
The tribe spent $920,000 on lobbying between 2004 and 2008, according to data from a government watchdog group, the Center for Responsive Politics. Bess said that money came from Gateway.
Leading the lobbying effort was Mercury Public Affairs, which is run by two of former Gov. George Pataki's top aides, Kieran Mahoney and Michael McKeon. A 2004 letter from Bess to Mahoney noted the monthly lobbying fee for 2005 was $20,000 a month. McKeon said the current figure is lower, but declined to elaborate.
"They are professionals in the gambling field," Bess said. "This is a gamble for them, too. If we never open a casino, they don't get their money back."