Feds kill Catskill casino proposal by Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican

By Michael Gormley
Albany, New York (AP) February 2011

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected a proposal to build a Native American casino within driving distance of New York City in the storied Catskill mountains.

The decision ends the effort by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin to open a casino in the long economically depressed area, once a destination for top celebrities at world-class resorts in what was known as the Borscht Belt.

The proposal was made in the waning days of former New York Gov. David Paterson’s administration last year as a way to bring much-needed jobs to the area and revenue to the state. But state and federal officials gave it long odds in recent weeks. The effort sought to combine two complex and usually separate issues – a casino application and settlement of ancestral land claims – in a novel legal approach.

“It is disheartening that the U.S. Department of the Interior has done an 11th-hour about-face by failing to support and finalize these agreements,” said Kimberly Vele, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band. “While we believe the department’s rationale is weak, we are committed to resolving the issues.”

The tribe said the project would have generated $925 million a year in economic activity and “removed a cloud over thousands of acres” in central New York state while creating a world-class casino creating thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in annual payments to the local county.

“This project would have created jobs and economic development in a region that desperately needs it, but it’s not the end of the line,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who supported the effort. “I will continue to work with local leaders and the state to pursue all available options.”

The Oneida Indian Nation, which is based in the central New York region where the Stockbridge-Munsee claimed territory, applauded the decision.

“The Stockbridge-Munsee have no legitimate claims to the lands of New York,” said Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter. “The process was always destined to fail.

“The elected officials that tried to push this deal through did a disservice to all people in New York by attempting to rewrite history to fit their narrow political interests,” Halbritter said in a clear jab at Paterson, the former Democratic governor.

Officials in the Catskills turned to Indian tribes after efforts aimed at amending the state constitution to legalize casino gambling failed. Those efforts suffered a major blow in 2008 when the Bush administration’s Department of Interior rejected plans for separate Catskill casinos involving the St. Regis Mohawks of northern New York and the Stockbridge-Munsee. The federal government cited the great distance between the two tribes’ reservations and the casino sites.

So the Stockbridge-Munsee tried to merge its land claim and the casino effort, but it was met with great opposition by the Oneidas, who have a world-class casino in central New York, and by racetracks that operate video slot machine centers, which also provide the state with a cut of the proceeds.

“This is a battle for everybody,” said Bennett Liebman, executive director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, “and part of it is to block and part of it is to put yourself in a position where you can become fully operative commercial casinos.”


Associated Press Writer Michael Hill contributed to this report.