If the State of New York and the billionaire-backed Shinnecock/Seminole partnership decide to develop a casino at EPCAL, will Riverhead have anything to say about it?

Do we have the metaphoric race of the tortoise and the hare running all this time between the Shinnecock Indian Nation and Riverhead Town’s EPCAL sale? Let’s take a look at how the tribe moves slowly but surely with careful, measured steps, while our Town of Riverhead plods along, sometimes slowly, sometimes fast, barely able to keep out of its own way.

The Shinnecocks’ slow movement has been inching toward their dream of owning a gambling casino. In every step the 660-member tribe has taken toward that goal over the years, they’ve had key advantages: one is how LI’s power elite, for generations, underestimates this upstart tribe from Southampton. A good example was most recently, when tribal officials sought to raise some needed money with large street signs on tribal land (what’s left of it) along Montauk Highway. Agitated Southampton officials tried to swat them down, but lost that fight, and the signs remain.

Let’s see how the competition for getting things is going for the Town of Riverhead in its EPCAL sale. This column has opined on the possibility of a gambling casino emerging from the financial difficulties encountered by the EPCAL buyer’s parent company, Triple Five Group (see column of Sept. 8, 2019), and the tenacity of the forever-underestimated Shinnecocks in Southampton. In every step of their way to climb out of the poverty that grips their tribal territory there, the Shinnecocks have been unexpectedly clever and determined. Despite internal divisions, they stuck with the painstaking process to gain federal, tribal recognition, winning it in 2010.

Along with that federal recognition, the tribe made sure to win the right to do their own “Class-III gaming” (full-table gambling, Vegas style) on either their own tribal land, or offsite, the latter on land that is taken into a ”trust” for the tribe. Federal law removes a lot of roadblocks to open the way for such land deals to turn into these gambling
trusts.

And the Shinnecocks have been just as clever with their long-term relations with New York State, a crucial spoke in the wheel on their journey to their dream. This is because New York, the licensing authority for all things gambling, has long been studying just exactly where full Class-III, live-table games could best be located downstate.

And as New York works to eventually complete this study, the tribe has made good use of the time involved, such good use that they will be a prime candidate — likely first in line — when the State Gaming Commission starts to consider license applications. Why?

The tribe has openly searched for sites on Long Island for their casino, and EPCAL at Calverton and Westwood’s in Hampton Bays were two of several all the way into Queens. They even partnered with Gateway Casino Resorts to gain momentum. When progress slowed, that partnership ended.

Undaunted, the tribe sought new backers, and that’s where they were just dealt a winning hand, truly the big-time: the Shinnecocks just formed a partnership with Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment, a giant in the native gaming world of the U.S. and internationally. Add to this partnership the billionaire Jack Morris, who has developed many successful casinos with his group known as Tri-State Partners.

And there’s one further card the Shinnecocks have to play: that’s the same dismissive attitude in the Town of Riverhead that they encounter in the Town of Southampton. The politicians in Riverhead Town Hall say they all oppose a casino in Calverton. And all of us wait for the state‘s subdivision approval for EPCAL before a sale can go through.

But published reports about Triple Five’s serious decline in its own principal business — shopping malls — have raised growing concern whether they will be able to fulfill their contractual obligations. To address these fears, the town has asked the buyer for financial disclosure, but so far, to no avail. The buyer replies that they don’t have to, and actually they’re correct: among huge gaps in the pathetic contract of sale, drafted by the town itself, updated financials aren’t required from the buyer. So they quibble over how much updated financials would cost to produce (!), and the outcome remains uncertain.

Others dismiss the idea of a casino’s finding its way to EPCAL as “fear mongering.” They insist that it could never happen, owing to the inadequacy of state-owned roads that now serve the site. Still others find comfort in the number of casino projects of late that have failed elsewhere. They would do well, for themselves and those whom they mislead, to take a hard look at the tribe’s new partner, Seminole Hard Rock and their “Midas touch” success rate. Failure is not in their vocabulary. Meanwhile, all this drumbeat of condescending skeptics serves the tribe’s purpose so well.

Maybe if the town had protected itself with a carefully drafted contract of sale, uncertainty would not reign. Maybe if the State of New York, with its sovereign powers, were not the 800 pound gorilla in the room, local zoning that prohibits casinos would not be at risk. Maybe if the Town of Riverhead, operating more secretly than ever, as if it were a detective’s office, had the confidence of the people, EPCAL’s future would not be so precarious, and so mistrusted, in their eyes.

And maybe if money – big money – would not be so tempting to a town that’s flat broke, as well as to a State Gaming Commission that may soon be in the market for a well-heeled developer of a Class-III casino, we all could easily afford to be dismissive, condescending, and self-assured.

Two statements by the players deserve mention. The first is by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when he voiced last year his opposition to casino projects that make “empty promises of millions,” when it’s a “casino deal put together by casino operators.” He fell into uncharacteristic silence, however, when asked if he also opposed casino deals put together by American tribes who become partners. And since he spoke, or chose not to speak, on the subject at that time, the state’s already disrupted finances have gone from bad, to worse, to near bankruptcy.

Then there’s the statement of the Shinnecocks, relatively inspiring in contrast to the governor’s tap dance. When they announced this past week their fully-vested partnership with Seminole Hard Rock Entertainment and Tri-State Partners, they spoke of their long-standing dream of a “world-class entertainment destination,” creating “hundreds of jobs and a revenue stream for the Shinnecock Nation and the State of New York.”

And the tribe ended with this, as published in last week’s Newsday: “We ask the people of this great state to come forward and work with us to put away the ghosts of the past and a history marred with broken promises, theft and suffering.” Referring to “these broken times,” they spoke of how “everyone seeks economic growth and development.”

Will the tortoise of the Shinnecock Tribe find their casino dream at EPCAL as our hare of a town hall and their mouthpieces race in all directions? Many of us harbor serious misgivings about a gambling casino in our midst, relying as it would on the “blood money” streamed in by not only those who seek entertainment, but also those who die slowly, to the broken hearts of their loved ones, as they feed the monkey of a gambling addiction.

All of this truly intensifies the need for open discussion and debate – a rare occurrence these days. Let’s take full account of the tribe’s closing remark: “Together we can make a brighter future for the Shinnecock Nation and the citizens of New York.“ Let’s take a hard look at that, and be better prepared for a variety of possible and probable outcomes.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg