EXPRESS SESSIONS: Shinnecock Officials, Local Lawmakers Examine Nation’s Economic Development Efforts

Panelists for A Plan To Prosper, The Shinnecock Nations Economic Future

News focusing on the Shinnecock Nation in recent weeks has centered on its plans to begin construction on a casino on the Shinnecock Territory in Southampton this summer.

The nation’s leaders, in a panel hosted by the Express News Group last week, emphasized that the gaming facility would be just one cog in an overall economic development plan designed to boost the standard of living for all of its members — including a tax-free gas station on the north side of Sunrise Highway that the nation hopes to break ground on this summer.

Other projects include the two electronic billboard monuments on Sunrise Highway, a medical marijuana processing facility and dispensary on the territory, and a hotel/spa on the nation’s Westwoods property in Hampton Bays.

“We’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket anymore,” Shinnecock Nation Board of Trustees Chairman Bryan Polite said, referring to a perpetually stalled vision for a casino dating back decades that was once seen as the best and, perhaps, only way to generate significant revenue for the Shinnecock.

“We’ve found this approach where we do these multi-prong projects. It’s something that we feel is self-sustainable and will allow Shinnecock to be less dependent on government grants and more economically self-sustainable — not just for this generation but for the next seven.”

Local lawmakers Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who participated in the virtual panel discussion last Thursday, March 11, agreed that economic development was critical for the nation and its people. But they urged Shinnecock leaders to reconsider the casino proposal, fearing it would have a detrimental effect on the surrounding area, and the East End in general, in terms of traffic and the environment.

But both conceded that the state has left the Shinnecock little alternative by dropping discussions years ago to develop an alternate site for a gaming facility.

“I don’t want anybody in this town living in poverty. I don’t want anyone on the Shinnecock Reservation living in poverty,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “I want to help assist you guys with economic development to lift everyone, not just to a basic standard of living, but, you guys, as the original settlers in this area, you guys should be living large. … There’s no reason why here, in the heart of one of the wealthiest areas on the planet, that you guys should be living in squalid type of conditions.

“There are negative sides to gaming,” the supervisor said, adding that he has personally seen people whose lives have been “destroyed” by a gambling addiction. But he continued, “There’s no doubt, you don’t need me to like gaming. I know. And if you think it’s the right thing to do, I can, though, I think, legitimately express some concerns about traffic and other impacts that gambling might have on the area. And you can disagree with those — but I don’t think we can disagree on the fact that we want the Shinnecock people to enjoy a good economic standard of living.”

In addition to Mr. Polite, Mr. Thiele and Mr. Schneiderman, panelists for the discussion, “A Plan To Prosper: The Shinnecock Nation’s Economic Future,” included Shinnecock Nation Board of Trustees Vice Chairman Randy King, General Council Secretary Germain Smith and Shinnecock legal counsel Tela Troge. The 90-minute forum, held via Zoom, was hosted by Express News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw.

Stonewalled By The State

Things were looking promising for the Shinnecock about a decade ago. A long-fought battle for federal recognition had been achieved in 2010 following a 30-year effort, and state officials seemed ready to enter into negotiations to award a state compact to the Shinnecock to open and operate a full-fledged Class III casino somewhere in the state.

With its federal recognition, the Shinnecock Nation earned the right to operate — without state permission — a Class II casino, consisting of video slot machines, bingo and other lower-tier gambling, on nation-owned land. But leaders were reluctant to do so, hoping to preserve the territory for Shinnecock residents and focus instead on a more lucrative casino, which would include table games and other forms of high-end gambling, somewhere else, preferably closer to New York City.

But then the state changed the rules, rewriting the constitution to allow corporations, instead of just Native American tribes, to apply for the compacts to run casinos. Negotiations with the state came to a complete stop, and talks of a Shinnecock casino languished.

It wasn’t the first time the nation felt betrayed by the state, its leaders said.

“We actually sat down at the table with the governor’s office in the New York City office,” Mr. King said of discussions in 2012, “and we were promised a follow-up meeting, and we were talking about our compact, which is a license agreement that enables the tribe to have an exclusivity zone to conduct gaming. And we were promised the meeting, a follow-up meeting after that initial gaming legislation finalized.

“The phone never rang.”

Mr. Thiele, the state assemblyman, said that was a fair accounting, noting the division of power in Albany and saying that his office was in favor of those talks continuing. The Shinnecock have gotten a raw deal from the Cuomo administration when it came to any economic development plan, he said.

“They’ve tried to engage the executive branch of New York State government, and they’d been stonewalled at every turn,” Mr. Thiele said. “And I understand that frustration, whether it’s been the gasoline station and the convenience center or medical marijuana or fishing rights, it has been a one-sided conversation.

“So I understand the frustration, and I think that’s what led to, first of all, the electronic billboards, which is the subject of litigation, and the issues with regard to the casino. So, from my perspective, the state and the executive agencies should be talking to the Shinnecock, not litigating with the Shinnecock.”

Given the now almost decade-long silent treatment from the governor’s office, the Shinnecock leaders said they felt they had no other option than to move forward on their own and consider a casino just outside Southampton Village — a facility they would not need state or local permission to build.

In December, the nation’s leadership held a vote on whether to pursue economic development projects — including the casino — on land facing Montauk Highway, according to Mr. Smith, and the measure was approved with a supermajority vote.

“We have to do what we have to do at the end of the day,” Ms. Troge said. “We have an entire community of children and elders and students who we need to support. … It’s like we have to do this, because we have to survive.”

“So, it comes a time where you have to assert your jurisdiction, your sovereignty,” Mr. King added. “And if Donald Trump owned a property out here and had the wherewithal to build the casino, do you think he would have held back the three decades? I don’t think so. … When you’re left with what you’re left with, sometimes you have to make a move.”

Jammed Up By Traffic?

Objections to the casino plan, from both the public and local lawmakers, have centered on the specter of daily traffic jams surrounding the territory, akin to what was created during the U.S. Open golf tournaments at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in years past. The fear is that the casino patrons would add to the already bumper-to-bumper “trade parade” on Montauk Highway in front of the Shinnecock Territory on a daily basis in the summer season.

A rendering of the proposed casino. COURTESY OF THE SHINNECOCK NATION

While the Shinnecock leaders said they would be happy to work with lawmakers to remediate any traffic concerns, they were quick to point out that the Shinnecock Nation did not create the town’s traffic woes and felt they were falling victim to a double standard — that the same criticism of increased traffic was rarely applied to consideration of numerous large-scale developments approved in the area.

“The practical reality is, traffic is a real problem. And that is indisputable,” Mr. Schneiderman said, noting that a rendering of the proposed casino released by the Shinnecock Nation depicted Montauk Highway as a four-lane highway, when, it is in fact two lanes. “I have attempted to drive from Hampton Bays at times to Southampton Village, and it’s taken me an hour and a half to go that distance, where it should be 15 minutes — right past the reservation.

“So we have a real problem with traffic, and I think they understand, too, that it may not be the optimal location, but they’re running out of options. So it’s a complicated situation.”

Mr. Thiele noted that before the casino can be built, an environmental review will have to be conducted, one he hopes will include a traffic study.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “that’s why I think there’s the need for an alternative location, an alternative site. I think trying to solve the traffic problem here without major infrastructure improvements to Montauk Highway is not possible. So it’s a big issue, and I don’t think there’s any resolution of it yet, and it’s going to have to be addressed, I think, in an environmental review.”

Mr. Polite, however, while acknowledging that both the supervisor and assemblyman have been eager to work with the Shinnecock on economic development plans, said that he and other Shinnecock officials were tired of having the blame pointed at them when there have been plenty of non-Shinnecock developments that have contributed to traffic without the same scrutiny or criticism. When a casino was first proposed 20 years ago, he said, officials loudly voiced traffic concerns then, but have done nothing to ease traffic in the area since.

“The Shinnecock does not cause the traffic issue,” he saaid. “And, over the last 20 years, you look around and you have development after development after development that causes more traffic, yet they still go forward with that development. And I’m not saying that we want to create more traffic. I’m just saying, it’s a little frustrating with the double standard.”

The supervisor disputed that depiction, however, saying that traffic studies have played an important role when town officials consider proposed development. A planned shopping center development on County Road 39, the Tuckahoe Center, was quashed several years ago because of the effect it would have on traffic, and a current plan to build a public swimming facility on County Road 39 is being challenged because of potential traffic impacts.

“I agree with Bryan — I don’t want to play a double standard here,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “It’s their land and it’s their right to develop it as they see fit. But it’s not true that the town projects aren’t met with the same criticism.”

Mr. Smith said that the Shinnecock people look around, however, and see the massive development of a one-time rural area, and it feels like the town has been quick to approve the overdevelopment.

“I’ve worked at estates on the East End that are four times the size of what we are proposing on the highway, and yet those permits somehow go through and they get passed and they clear out acres and acres of oceanfront property,” he said. “Shinnecock didn’t create this traffic hazard. So it’s not Shinnecock’s responsibility to solve it.”

While the nation didn’t create the traffic problem, Mr. Thiele said he was hopeful that everyone could work together to address it.

“Traffic’s a problem,” the assemblyman said. “It’s been a problem for a while. It gets worse every year. It is going to be worse next year. It’s going to be worse five years from now. And it is correct to say that, the Shinnecock Nation didn’t cause that problem, I think we all can agree on that. But we, collectively, I think, have to deal with the issue of traffic, and every proposal that generates additional traffic. You’ve got to get people in and out to your facility. So I do think there’s a responsibility to have to address that part of it.”

Other Economic Drivers

The one thing that everyone agreed on is the need for economic development on the territory — 60 percent of the people living on the territory are living below the poverty line. The nation depends on a host of federal grants and other funds to survive. The development plans would let the nation set its own course, free of the oversight that comes along with the federal programs.

Mr. Polite noted that most municipalities have a tax base — they impose taxes on residents to support a budget. But he explained that when the population is below the poverty rate, it wouldn’t make much sense to tax residents, so the Shinnecock have no tax base.

“So we have to look to these economic projects,” he said. “In the words of my good friend Lance Gumbs, there’s an economic pie and Shinnecock has been trying to fill that economic pie with different projects.”

And it truly is about future generations, especially for Mr. Smith, who has focused much of his attention on the youth of the nation. He said he looks forward to a time when the nation will not have to depend on federal money to help educate its children.

“We could incorporate more programs that we don’t have to rely on grants for, for educating our kids,” he said. “… We could teach our young people how to come to class on time, how to study, how to learn, let them know they have mentors and leaders that care about them. And that revenue from the casino would help that tremendously.”