Thiele Measure Would Require Governor To Cooperate If Shinnecock Nation Seeks New Site For Proposed Casino

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New York state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.

New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said this week he would introduce a bill that would direct the governor’s office to negotiate in good faith with the Shinnecock Nation should the tribe seek alternatives to its Southampton territory as a site for a casino.

“This has one purpose and one purpose only,” Mr. Thiele said of his bill, “and that’s to try to get the Shinnecocks a place at the table when the discussion on casinos is expected to take place in Albany this year.”

With the state searching for new revenue sources, officials are expected to soon decide whether to move up the awarding of three proposed downstate casino licenses to this year instead of waiting until 2023, as originally proposed.

After years of discussing the possibility of building a casino amid hopes that the state would help it find a suitable location closer to the larger market provided by New York City, the tribe announced last month that it would develop a 76,000-square-foot gaming facility on a portion of its territory just west of Southampton Village with plans to open by mid-2023.

In announcing their plans to move forward, tribal leaders said they had grown frustrated by the state, which had ignored their request for cooperation and had instead expanded its own footprint in the gaming industry by opening Jake’s 58 in Islandia.

The new casino proposed for the Shinnecock territory will be outfitted with up to 1,000 video lottery terminals and other gambling attractions. Because it would be a Class II facility, as opposed to the Class III operations typically associated with Las Vegas or other Indian-owned operations such as Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, the tribe does not need state approval to move forward with the project on its own land. Nor would Southampton Town have any authority through its zoning code to deny or even shape the project.

The tribe’s plans have been greeted skeptically by town officials and neighbors, who have said the site, with access off of two-lane Montauk Highway, would cause traffic tie-ups and environmental degradation. Some have questioned whether it would be a financial success, given its location on the East End, with Jake’s 58 providing a more convenient location for those coming from the city or Nassau and central Suffolk counties.

Under Mr. Thiele’s proposal, the tribe would be allowed to request a more lucrative Class III license, which would require a contract known as a compact with the state. Any compact would require that a casino be built at least 50 miles away from the tribe’s Southampton territory.

Although Mr. Thiele did not formally run his idea past tribal leaders, chairman Bryan Polite said it was a welcome development. “We said it several times already: At the end of the day, we would prefer a more suitable location,” Mr. Polite said on Friday, March 19.

Anything that would compel the state to discuss options with the tribe “would be very helpful,” he added.

Mr. Thiele said he would try to get his bill passed as part of the state budget negotiations, and if that fails, he would seek to have it attached to any bills brought up this year to consider casino licenses.

He said even if it is not adopted into law, it might have the desired effect just by being brought to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attention.

He said that was the case about a month ago when the Assembly took up a measure to give senior citizens over the age of 65 preference for COVID-19 vaccines, and the governor soon afterward changed the policy to provide just for that.

Neighborhood Group Forms

While Mr. Thiele is working on ways to help the tribe find a new location for a casino, a new organization, the Hamptons Neighborhood Group, has formed with the same goal in mind.

The group, which already has a website, Hamptonsneighborhoodgroup.org, held a meeting on March 16 at which members agreed that the Shinnecock territory was not a good location for a casino and pledged to work with the tribe to find a better one.

The group, which is chaired by James Wacht, stressed that it wanted to work as the tribe’s ally, not an adversary. Members said the group would talk to town officials to see if it would be feasible to use Community Preservation Fund money to buy development rights from the tribe. Others suggested it was important to solicit the aid of U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin and Assemblyman Thiele.

While some questioned whether the casino would be financially viable, others said they anticipated the tribe was serious about its intentions.

Besides weighing the need for a lawyer to represent the group’s interests, members discussed the possibility of hiring a lobbyist with experience in state government to get the governor’s ear about the need to find a better location.

Mr. Polite said he had spoken with the group’s leaders and said the tribe would accept any olive branch extended to it.

“We’ve made it clear as much as we appreciate advocacy for a better location, we’ve been down this road before and we need concrete conversations,” he said.

Mr. Polite added that those who question whether the casino will be a financial success should stop speculating about it because they have not seen the feasibility studies that have been prepared for the project.

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