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Casino deal augurs economic power for resurgent Iroquois

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ALBANY, N.Y. ? At least two of the Six Nations may soon wield new economic and political power, as New York state turns to American Indian gaming to help recover from the financial shock of the World Trade Center atrocity.

To bring in new state revenue, the New York Assembly voted in the early hours of Oct. 25 to approve negotiations for six new American Indian casinos. Resistance to the measure evaporated as legislative leaders worked out a deal pairing a Seneca gaming compact in the west of the state with approval of tribal casinos in the Catskills resort region north of New York City.

The Assembly voted 93 to 40 for the bill, which also expands the state lottery to include the popular multi-state Powerball and allows video lottery terminals at a number of racetracks. The State Senate earlier passed the bill by 52 to 8.

Gov. George Pataki is now free to press ahead with negotiations with the Seneca Nation of Indians for as many as three casinos. Under a previously announced memorandum of understanding, the Senecas will operate one each in the economically depressed cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls and reserve the option for a third on their own territory.

The act also gives the legislative go-ahead for a major project by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and Park Place Entertainment Corp. in Sullivan County. The plans, already well-advanced, had previously met determined resistance from Atlantic City casino mogul Donald Trump.

The act allows two more casinos, one in Sullivan County and one in Ulster County, raising the question of which tribe will sponsor them. Frequent reports say the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohicans of Wisconsin may pick up a casino project at the Monticello Raceway previously abandoned by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. The Mohicans originated in the Hudson Valley region before moving west in the early 19th century, and they still maintain land claims there.

The Ulster County project is still a mystery, however. In a statement, Chief Paul Thompson of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council said, "We are extremely pleased that the New York State Legislature supports the development of a Mohawk Casino and resort in Sullivan County. This project will allow the tribal council to guide the Mohawk people on the path to economic recovery and true self-sufficiency."

The $500 million project will feature a 750-room hotel, 130,000 square feet of gaming space, 15,000 square feet of meeting space, eight restaurants and a spa. Under a previously announced agreement, it will yield $15 million a year in direct payments to neighboring local governments.

While waiting passage of the bill, the council said construction would start before the end of 2002.

Buoyed by the large margin of support, however, spokeswoman Rowena General stepped up expectations.

"If all goes well we're hoping it will be in spring 2002."

General noted rapid progress in preliminary agreements since the tribe filed its land-into-trust application in March for the 66-acre site in Sullivan County, previously the location of the famous Kutsher's Resort. On Oct. 12, she said the tribe signed an agreement providing union representation for future hotel workers. On Oct. 17, she said BIA officials visited the site as the first stage of the land-into-trust process.

"In less than seven months we have had many accomplishments."

Seneca Tribal Council member Richard Jemison was contacted before receiving the final version of the act. "We had an existing memorandum of understanding with the governor," he said. "We want to check how the new legislation relates to the MOU."

He said early reports noted the main difference was a provision applying state labor law to the new American Indian casinos.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had insisted on this provision when the MOU was first announced and approved by the state Senate in June. He also indicated he would stall approval of the Seneca compact until the Mohawk plans also advanced.

The gaming issue was suddenly eclipsed on Sept. 11 by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers, but it returned with renewed urgency when the state began to look for new money to offset the estimated $9 billion lost revenue from the disaster.

The act will establish a "Tribal-state compact revenue account" that will receive the state share of casino revenues provided by the compact negotiations.

The Seneca compact already projects payment of 25 percent of the "net drop" from electronic slot machines, the cash cow of the gaming industry.

The total state revenue from all the gaming provisions in the bill is expected to reach $1 billion a year.