ST. REGIS MOHAWK RESERVATION, N.Y. -- After another abrupt shift in
Catskill casino plans, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council is presenting a
united front to a divided Interior Department.
All three tribal chiefs traveled to Washington, D.C. Nov. 24 to explain the
plan to Interior Solicitor Sue Ellen Wooldridge. "They are confident
progress was made in the effort to clear up any misunderstanding and to
resolve the issue," said council spokesman Brendan White.
The St. Regis Mohawks have sought a casino in the potentially lucrative
Catskills resort area for the better part of a decade, but their path has
had many twists and dead ends. In 2000 a new tribal council broke ties with
one developer shortly after it had won a crucial BIA approval for
construction at its site, the Monticello Raceway harness racetrack in
The council threw in with a large gaming company, Park Place Entertainment,
which seemed deeply committed to the project. But the company went through
two mergers, winding up as part of Harrah's Entertainment. The new
corporate parent, in the middle of a strategic shift, seemed to lose
interest in the Catskills.
The latest turn came in July when two newly elected chiefs, Barbara Lazore
and Lorraine White, notified Harrah's they were renewing the deal at
Monticello Raceway with the reorganized successor to their original
partner, now called Empire Resorts. They said they would abandon plans with
Harrah's to develop a casino at Kutsher's Sports Academy, formerly a famous
Lazore and White received a letter in September from Acting Interior Deputy
Assistant Secretary George Skibine, the longtime director of casino
approvals at the BIA, saying that the April 2000 "two-part determination"
approval was still valid. The project, they said, needed only a letter of
concurrence from New York Gov. George Pataki to go forward, and they began
a lobbying campaign in November to get it.
But Wooldridge, the legal officer for Interior, threw a kink in the plan
when she wrote a letter in early November saying that the Kutsher plan was
further along in the Interior process and that the Monticello plans, "which
were withdrawn and recently resubmitted," were "in the earliest stages of
review by the regional office."
Chief James Ransom, a supporter of the Kutsher's plan, criticized his two
colleagues for dropping it so abruptly. "To just throw away our $23 million
investment and five and a half years of effort when there are still many
roadblocks to overcome at the racetrack is irresponsible," he was quoted as
saying in a regional paper.
But White emphasized that all three chiefs had joined in the presentation
to Wooldridge. "The Council is pursuing the Monticello Raceway," he said.
Lazore said earlier, "The Mohawk Tribe has come full circle and is ready to
build a world-class gaming facility at Monticello Raceway, as we had
originally planned in 2000. We have conducted thorough research and
undergone careful deliberation on the best site for our Catskill casino,
and firmly believe the racetrack is the right choice.
"We are confident that building at the Raceway will provide for the
long-term welfare of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, while bringing thousands
of jobs and economic opportunities to the people of Sullivan County. We
call on the Governor to immediately approve this project so we can deliver
economic stability and jobs for all of our people."
She said the tribe had also successfully completed an environmental review
for the site, with an updated Environmental Impact Statement as required by
In pushing for Pataki's approval, she said the proposed gaming complex
would contribute more than $1 billion to the state budge and an additional
$105 million for Sullivan County in its first 10 years. An influential
state senator from the region, however, is demanding a higher cut of the
potential revenue for local governments.
The governor has already received prior approval from the state Legislature
to negotiate tribal compacts for up to three casinos in the Catskills. The
act passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World
Trade Center, when the state was seeking emergency revenue, and recently
survived all constitutional challenges.
When the St. Regis Council abandoned the Monticello partnership in 2000, it
was concerned in part about serious legal problems facing some of its
principals. The company later reorganized to buy out the partners under the