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Let the games begin: Tee time at Turning Stone - Economic leadership – Oneida Nation scores tournament

VERONA, N.Y. – The Oneida Indian Nation has, over the past few years, quietly created a world-class golfing destination at its Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona. Next year, the OIN will debut on the world’s golfing stage as the first American Indian nation to host a PGA Tour golf tournament.

On Aug. 23, the OIN announced that the Professional Golfers’ Association of America selected the Atunyote Golf Club at Turning Stone to host a new PGA tournament. The inaugural Turning Stone Resort Championship will be held Sept. 17 – 23, 2007. Players will compete for a $6 million purse, with the victor raking in a cool million-plus. Turning Stone signed a six-year deal to serve as title sponsor. [Indian Country Today is owned by Four Directions Media, an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation.]

OIN Representative Ray Halbritter, speaking to a packed house at Turning Stone’s Showroom, said the nation will focus on making the new PGA event a permanent part of the central New York sporting landscape.

“We’ll create a team to take advantage of this opportunity,” he said. “We welcome the community in getting involved. We’re going to make this a success.”

Halbritter’s invitation goes out to a decidedly divided community. In recent years, contentious litigation over land claims and tax collection has clouded relations between the OIN and elements of the surrounding community. While some local municipal leaders have worked productively with the OIN, others have remained insistent that the nation submit to their regulatory, taxation and governmental authority. Halbritter said that many have failed to recognize the nation’s ability to develop projects that benefit the entire region.

“There are some good leaders who have stepped forward and some are still stuck in a rut,” Halbritter said. “This situation [the golf tournament] needs leadership. We’ve reached out to the business community.”

Central New York, due in large part to a gridlocked and inept state government, has been losing jobs and residents for decades. What little business development there is in the region occurs largely because of state tax breaks.

But with roughly 5,000 employees, the OIN is the currently largest employer in the region and growing. PGA estimates say that a major golf event can lure anywhere from $25 million to $50 million of commercial activity into the host region. This major contribution to the regional economy further solidifies the Oneida Nation’s place as one of the top economic engines in central New York.

The PGA recognized this; its governing board voted unanimously to hold a big-time tournament at the resort for two reasons. One is the area’s passion for golf, evident in the dozens of courses dotting central New York. The second is Turning Stone’s successful hosting of two pro golf events in the preceding months.

In June, Atunyote hosted the Professional National Championship, a tournament for PGA-member club professionals across the country. And in July, after flooding in Endicott rendered the En-Joie course unplayable, the B.C. Open was moved to Atunyote. With only 12 days’ notice, Turning Stone’s groundskeepers successfully prepared Atunyote to the PGA’s rigorous standards. Players gave the course and its greens rave reviews.

In recent years, the B.C. Open had been hampered by two unfortunate circumstances that drew players elsewhere. One was that the British Open was held during the same week; the other was the relatively small purse offered at the B.C. Thus, the tournament had trouble attracting the upper echelon of tour pros. Floods on the Susquehanna River sealed its fate.

But the Turning Stone Resort Championship will not have that problem. The tournament will be the only sanctioned PGA event on its particular weekend. It will also be the first of seven events comprising the Fall Series, the results of which will largely determine where players end up on the end-of-season money list, and who will be tapped for participation in prestigious invitational tourneys the following season. Thus the top players will have every incentive to compete.

Halbritter noted that TV coverage of the Turning Stone Resort Championship will bring international exposure to central New York as a tourist destination. It’s too early now, a year in advance, to say exactly whether PGA estimates of regional economic impact will bear fruit.

“We can’t predict the attendance,” Halbritter said. “But we don’t have the infrastructure. We need more hotels, restaurants and we [the nation] can’t build them all.”

The PGA would never have come to central New York without the presence of Oneida business enterprises. But the region’s tourism infrastructure is strained. During the B.C. Open at Atunyote, hotels and restaurants for miles up and down Interstate 90 were packed. By bringing the PGA to town, the OIN is creating another direct opportunity for local businesses, contractors, vendors and suppliers (and their employees) to make money.

In the end, it’s all about economic leadership – in which the OIN has excelled in recent years, while the Legislature in Albany is still figuring out how to pass a budget.

As Halbritter said: “We’re a success despite the odds.”