March 10, 2009, The Buffalo News: Senecas, legislators huddle over casino for Catskills

Senecas, legislators huddle over casino for Catskills

News Albany Bureau

ALBANY -- Seneca Nation negotiators met with state legislators today in their bid to develop a $1.3 billion casino in the Catskills resort area just 90 minutes from Manhattan.

"Our formula is proven," said Seneca Councilor Michael John, referring to the nation's three casinos currently operating in Western New York.

The Senecas see the Catskills -- approved for Indian-owned casinos in 2001 -- as a major financial prize. But federal Interior Department officials have put the stops on such off-reservation casino deals in recent years, and it is unclear what the Obama administration's approach might take.

Robert Porter, senior policy adviser to the Senecas, said the strategy is to build support for the project among state officials, including Gov. David A. Paterson, then get a law through Congress permitting the off-reservation development deal.

For the state, Porter said, the casino could mean $160 million annually in revenue-sharing payments -- more than the Seneca Nation gives Albany in shares for its three casinos now.

With a Michigan-based partner, the Senecas are proposing the casino at a 63-acre site off Interstate 86 in Sullivan County. By the project's second phase, the plan envisions 5,000 full-time jobs. When the project is complete, it calls for 9,000 slot machines, 11 restaurants, retail and convention space and a 5,000-seat showroom.

The delegation of Seneca representatives met Tuesday in the Capitol with lawmakers from the Catskills, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and staff from the Paterson administration.

"We're not making this up. People know our results," Porter said of the tribe's gambling business experience.

The Catskills have seen a number of Indian casino plans come and go, halted by tribal infighting, legal problems or dead ends with the federal government.

Asked about the Paterson administration's reaction to the Seneca plan, Porter said, "They're listening very carefully."

As for the state linking the casino issue to ending the dispute over uncollected cigarette taxes, the Seneca representatives said that idea appears to be waning.

John, who heads the Seneca's Catskills casino committee, said there was such talk when the tribe first raised the casino plan. But he said they have been "weaning" officials from the idea.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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