A week after the Shinnecock Nation announced plans to build a casino on its territory just west of Southampton Village, reaction has been largely muted, with many in the community taking a wait-and-see attitude. Others have questioned if the tribe intends to actually follow through with its plans or is simply using the proposal as a bargaining chip to encourage New York State to help it find a better location.
But tribal Chairman Bryan Polite, in a series of public statements, including at last week’s press conference unveiling the nation’s plans to build a 76,000-square-foot facility with 1,000 video lottery terminals and 30 Texas Hold ’Em tables, said the tribe’s resolve should not be doubted.
Mr. Polite has acknowledged that building the casino on the tribe’s homeland was not its first choice, saying it would have to be built near some tribe members’ homes, requiring proper screening, and that solving potential traffic problems would take some effort.
In an interview this week, he voiced frustration at the question of whether the tribe was dangling the project as leverage to bring the state to the negotiating table. “I don’t think we’d be spending the amount of money we are if we were not committed to it,” he said.
Mr. Polite reiterated that the nation was done trying to deal with state, which, he said, has had no substantive talks with the tribe about finding a better location for a gaming facility since the state constitution was amended in 2013 to allow it to grant gaming licenses to commercial firms, which then compete with tribal casinos and provide a strong source of revenue for the state.
“We have waited 20 years for the state to help us find a more suitable location,” he said, “so we are moving ahead. It’s not a bluff.”
Last week, Mr. Polite announced that the tribe was getting financial backing and technical advice from the Seminole Nation, with whom it signed a contract last year, but will not be a formal partner with that tribe in this particular venture. Instead, it is working with Tri State Partners, a New Jersey development firm, whose principal, Jack Morris, owns a house in Sag Harbor.
The casino that is planned for the Shinnecock territory is a Class II facility. Class II casinos differ from more lucrative Class III operations which have high-stakes table games where gamblers play against the house. To build a Class III casino, the tribe would have to sign an agreement with the state called a compact.
Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren reacted cautiously to the news. “I’ve reached out to the tribal chairperson,” the mayor said. “So I’m just waiting to hear from Bryan. Before I can comment, I want to talk to him and other tribal leaders.”
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman repeated that he is opposed to gambling as a form of economic development because of the negative societal impacts associated with it, but he acknowledged the town has no authority to regulate the construction of a casino on tribal land. He said he had called Mr. Polite to express his opposition to the idea, but that they had not discussed it further.
The supervisor continued to express his doubts about the economic viability of the project. “What is the catchment area? Who are the people they are trying to get to come to the casino?” he asked. With Suffolk County OTB’s Jake’s 58, which is seeking another 1,000 terminals itself, located mid-island in Islandia, it will be hard for a tribal casino to draw people from western and central Long Island, he said. And if the tribe wants to draw people from eastern Long Island, that may not work out either, he added. “You can probably get to Foxwoods by ferry faster from Montauk than you can get to Shinnecock” on a summer day, he said.
Mr. Schneiderman said traffic would be a major stumbling block. “You are not going to put in a light and make traffic go away,” he said, suggesting that cars could back up to State Highway 24 in Hampton Bays and other feeder roads, including County Road 39 and Tuckahoe Road near the Stony Brook Southampton campus, where Stony Brook Southampton Hospital is planning to build a new facility itself.
The supervisor said he had received about a dozen emails this week from constituents opposing the plan, with some even threatening to leave town if the casino is built.
Mr. Polite said any comments from the supervisor regarding the business model were purely “speculation on his part. He is not in the casino business and he hasn’t been part of any of the feasibility studies we have done.”
He added the tribe would do its best to mitigate traffic but said he found it ironic that the leader of a town that has approved development for years and been responsible for traffic tie-ups that exist now would suddenly be worried about people having “to wait an extra 20 minutes.”
Bob Deluca, the president of the Group for the East End, said it went without saying that the proposal would have environmental impacts, from traffic to wastewater generation, but he said Southampton Town should not be surprised the tribe is taking action.
He pointed to the town’s approval over the tribe’s objections of the Parrish Pond subdivision two decades ago on a site across the road from the Shinnecock territory as a key moment in the relationship.
“I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “I think the tribe said, ‘That’s it. We’ve tried a million ways to explain the importance of this property and you keep ignoring us.’” He said it was only after Parish Pond when the tribe started to push for a casino.
He held out hope that the town and state could find a creative way to perhaps buy the development rights to a portion of the Westwoods property to provide the tribe with a revenue stream while it sought other economic development options.
“These guys have been saying for years they needed help or this was going to be the end result,” he said.
Mr. Schneiderman has been among those asking if the tribe is seeking to use the threat of a casino as leverage to get the state to award it one of an estimated three casino contracts being considered for downstate locations by 2023.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said lobbyists for commercial gaming companies have been leaning on the state to move up the 2023 date and end a prohibition against allowing a casino to be developed in New York City, but he did not know if the tribe stood to gain from such a change.
“I do know it is on the radar screen,” he said of the state’s interest in finding new sources of revenue in the wake of the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. “But I’m not sure the governor’s office or his agencies have ever given the tribe the time of day when it comes to discussing gaming facilities.”
Reached Monday, Todd Ullrich, the owner of the Tidewater Pub, a restaurant and bar next to the Shinnecock’s territory, said he had heard rumors of the tribe building a casino for years. “It would be interesting if they decide to go through with it,” he said. “If something like that came along, hopefully we’d sell a lot more food. Anything like that — the hospital being built down the street — would be good for business.”
Larry Hoffman, the president of the Southampton Business Alliance, said his group would meet next week and said the casino would most likely be a topic of interest. He referred calls to the group’s executive director, Sheryl Heather, but she was not immediately available for comment.