Mohawk casino expanding to ‘destination resort’

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AKWESASNE, N.Y. – The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in northern New York unveiled plans in October to expand its modest casino into a full-scale entertainment destination. The proposed expansion project includes construction of a 400-room hotel and an 850-seat multi-purpose room, as well as the relocation of the tribe’s other gaming venue – the Mohawk Bingo Palace – to the casino site.

“Our gaming operations are performing at the level where we now need to take the next step and grow,” said Tribal Chief Barbara Lazore. “It is the right time to move things forward for the tribe. It’s an exciting time.”

The Akwesasne Mohawk Casino has continued to grow since its doors first opened in 1999. After receiving Gov. George Pataki’s approval of the tribe’s gaming compact in 2005, the AMC proceeded with expanding the gaming floor to include more slot machines and it has been bursting at the seams. On weekends, the casino is filled to 85 percent capacity.

“If we don’t do something now, we’re going to lose business,” said Lazore.

The Mohawk Bingo Palace, which opened in the early 1980s, has produced millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe, thanks to its Class II video gaming machines and high-stakes bingo games. Although it is financially successful in its current location, the building itself is in need of many repairs and the tribe realized that a new building was necessary. The idea of moving it to the casino site was first proposed two years ago.

The tribe and its casino management have maintained over the years that they hoped to eventually expand the casino in order to attract more customers and better accommodate their current guests.

Without a hotel, the casino’s customers – most of whom travel from Canada – are forced to limit their time at the gaming facility in order to drive home. Akwesasne’s remote location isolates it from the rest of the state as well. The reservation, home to more than 10,000 Mohawks, is the only growing population in an otherwise economically depressed region.

The tribal council told its membership in early November that the expansion is going forward in part to secure Akwesasne’s economic future. Many areas of service and programming are in need of additional funding. The tribe’s medical clinic, for instance, no longer receives enough funding from state and federal programs to fully provide health care for its members and the tribe has had to contribute millions from its gaming revenue to cover the leftover costs.

While many community members have hoped that a casino in Sullivan County would fulfill all of Akwesasne’s financial needs, the tribal council said that they’ve never depended on casino revenue. The tribe is currently awaiting the governor’s concurrence on a plan to develop a casino at the Monticello Raceway in the Catskill Mountains, but isn’t “putting all our eggs in one basket.”

With 12,000 members enrolled in the tribe, the tribal council hopes the casino expansion will provide economic stability.

“There’s not going to be money falling from the sky,” said Tribal Chief Lorraine White. “We really think that this is something we need to pursue.”

The tribe hired Klas Robinson, a consulting firm, to examine its gaming options earlier this year and concluded that the best option is to combine the two gaming sites and expand into a “destination resort.”

Along with the hotel and multi-purpose room (which would serve as both a bingo hall and a special events location), the plans also call for the construction of a shopping area, eight restaurant and dining facilities, a retail area, ballrooms, meeting rooms, a raised parking structure for 1,000 vehicles and additional outdoor parking for 2,000 vehicles.

Expanding the casino could include bringing in a signature restaurant, the council said, along with other entertainment attractions that have yet to be determined.

“We are about to enter a whole new era of opportunity for the tribe and surrounding communities with a destination resort of this kind,” said White.

Other casinos in the state, such as Turning Stone Resort and Casino, have had success in terms of entertainment events and the St. Regis council hopes to develop a similar type of entertainment program.

While the council has opened up the expansion plans for discussion among its members, they hope to put a shovel in the ground by springtime; $1 million has already been paid to a private estate to expand the property grounds at the casino site by 22 acres.

“The proposed expansion has the potential to double the current employment numbers, and result in a substantial increase in revenue for the tribe,” the tribe said.

To date, the casino has generated $9 million for the tribe and community and employs nearly 700 people.

“We view this proposed expansion as one of the largest economic development projects that northern New York has seen in years,” said the council. “The benefits will be felt far beyond the Akwesasne community.”