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Seneca Nation Pursues Catskills Casino

Nation seeks fourth casino as legislators push for commercial gaming

With the recent retraction of a Bush-era rule limiting off-reservation gaming, leaders of the Seneca Nation of Indians have re-stated their commitment to build and operate a casino in the Catskill Mountains. Their move comes as state legislators begin a push to legalize commercial casino gaming in the state.

Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter confirmed the Nation’s intent to create a casino in the region. “The Seneca Nation holds title to 63 acres of land in the Catskills, and whether we build a Class III gaming facility on that land, or nearby, the Nation’s leaders are firm in their commitment to the Catskills region that we expect to build a first-class gaming facility there, as we have on Nation lands in Allegany, Buffalo and Niagara Falls,” Porter said.

On June 14, the Interior Department withdrew a controversial “guidance memorandum” issued in 2008 that allowed casinos on off-reservation trust lands only if they were within “commutable distance” of their reservations. Former Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (AS-IA) Carl Artman, who issued the guidance memorandum, indicated to Congress that 40 miles was the farthest a tribe could go from its reservation. Larry Echo Hawk, the current AS-IA, withdrew the memo after a year of consultations with tribal nations. “The 2008 guidance memorandum was unnecessary and was issued without the benefit of tribal consultation,” Echo Hawk said.

Five days before Interior withdrew the guidance memorandum, the Seneca Nation council approved a decision to pursue a Catskills casino and appointed a four-person committee to steer its efforts, issue a request for proposals for developer partners and seek necessary approvals under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Committee members are Councilors Michael L. John, Susan P. Abrams, Tracie M. Brown and nation Treasurer Bradley G. John.

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The retraction of the guidance memo opened the possibility that the Seneca Nation might be able to convert the lands it holds in the Catskills to a gaming-eligible status under federal law. Even though none of the Seneca Nation’s lands are held in trust by the Interior Department, the Nation said in a press release that “acquisition and conversion of land to trust status through the fee-to-trust process is the only means available to the Nation to develop,” indicating its willingness to consider converting its Catskills property into trust land.

The Seneca Nation currently operates three casinos, located at Salamanca, Allegany County; Buffalo and Niagara Falls. “The Seneca Nation has a proven track record of operating successful gaming establishments and a Seneca Catskills casino would be a great addition to our existing facilities,” Councilor Michael L. John said. “Since the start of this iteration of Catskills gaming, the Seneca Nation has been at the table and we intend to always be at the table.”

The shredding of the guidance memo doesn’t mean it will be easy for the Seneca Nation to convert its fee land to trust status for gaming, however. To do so, it must meet the rigorous requirements of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act’s rules.

Seneca will likely face competition from other nations seeking to establish a casino in the Catskills area, which is not far from the densely populated and lucrative New York market. One likely contender is the Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican Indians of Wisconsin, whose application to take 330 acres of land into trust in New York’s Sullivan County for a $700 million casino was denied by the Interior Department in February.

In addition, state Sen. John Bonacic, the chairman of both theSenate Judiciary Committee and Senate Racing, Wagering and Gaming Committee, has plans to forward a constitutional amendment to legalize commercial gambling in the state, according to an announcement on his web site. “Whether we agree with every action taken or not, under the leadership of Governor Cuomo and the Senate Majority Leader (Dean) Skelos, New York has changed for the better. I want to build on that energy during the off-session to develop proposals which are capable of passing both the Assembly and Senate relating to both private casino gaming development and improvements to New York’s horse racing industry,” Bonacic said. The questions he wants to explore include whether the state should “end efforts to attract Native American casinos and focus instead on private sector casino development” and what impact private sector casino development in Western New York would have on the Seneca’s gaming agreement with the state.