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Spitzer agrees with Mohawks for casino in Catskills

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By Michael Gormley -- Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. - A decades-old proposal for a casino in the Catskills took a major step Feb. 19 with Gov. Eliot Spitzer's agreement for the St. Regis Mohawk tribe to build and operate a gaming center at Monticello Raceway.

The Sullivan County casino that would be expected to draw gamers from the nearby New York City area is also expected to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to state government, as well as help revive the economically hard-pressed region. The $600 million casino is expected to provide 3,000 permanent jobs and create a building boom in the area.

The casino would also mark a return of the region as an entertainment hot spot, where top comedians, bands, singers and boxers once made regular stops. The names of the now-closed Catskills resorts and the stars who honed their craft there are part of American entertainment legend.

''By working together, we can establish a premier gaming facility that will produce significant revenues for the tribe and the state and help spark a resurgence of the Catskills region,'' Spitzer said.

Under the agreement, the state would receive 20 percent of the revenue from slot machines for the first two years, 23 percent for the next two years and 25 percent after that. Ending another major sticking point, the tribe agreed to comply with state tax, labor and health laws. For a sovereign tribe, the state couldn't simply require adherence to state laws.

''We commend Governor Spitzer's decisive action and commitment to our Sullivan County casino project which we believe will generate tremendous opportunities in and around the Catskills region,'' the Mohawk St. Regis Tribal Council said in a prepared statement. ''We rejoice in the prospects this important project presents for the future of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, the people of Sullivan County and New Yorkers across the state.''

The 30-year effort, however, isn't over.

Spitzer and the tribe are now urging the secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior to make final approvals, including taking raceway land into a trust. The department includes the BIA.

The Democratic governor wouldn't predict how the Republican Bush administration will react.

''I will be in Washington and will certainly convey to the secretary how important this is for the economy of the Catskills and Sullivan County,'' Spitzer told The Associated Press.

Spitzer said local concerns over traffic are eased at Monticello because the roadways to handle heavy traffic are in place, but not used to their potential. He said the state will also address concerns about gambling addiction.

Spitzer stated, as he did during his campaign, that ''casinos are not the totality of economic development,'' but they can be effective and lucrative especially in areas like the Catskills, that have historically been tourist destinations.

In December, Interior approved an environmental review of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's project. The agency found the proposed casino on 30 acres next to Monticello Gaming and Raceway would not have a significant environmental impact.

In mid-February, a group of farm and conservation groups sued the federal department to halt the project, arguing that a more thorough environmental review is needed. The case is in federal court in Manhattan.

The Mohawks, whose reservation straddles the U.S./Canadian border, are among a number of groups that have been trying to build a casino in the Catskills for the past decade.

Construction cannot begin until Interior puts the land into trust for the Mohawks.

The harness racing track is owned by Empire Resorts, which would build the new casino. The casino would offer blackjack, roulette, craps and traditional slot machines.

Empire spokesman Charles Degliomini has said construction could begin within the year at the site, located 75 miles north of New York City.