The Shinnecock Nation is set to finally receive federal recognition. This status gives the tribe the ability to apply for a Class III gaming license, which would allow it to operate a full-fledged, high-stakes gaming facility. The biggest question is, where? Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano would like the ball to stop on his number on the roulette wheel and he has tens of millions of reasons for it.
As this column often serves as a bully pulpit for Indian rights, I will spare you all the reasons why “federal recognition” is such a sham and why the Shinnecock Nation should be able to build a 100-story casino in Southampton. Instead, allow me to explain why this is such a good idea for Long Island.
Indian casinos do not guarantee prosperity for the tribe in possession of the license or the community surrounding it. But an Indian casino based in the heart of one of the most populated regions in the nation does. A casino at the Nassau Coliseum site would be the single largest gambling facility in the nation. It is simple math. The Nassau “Hub” would finally be realized with an infusion of public and private money, fast-tracking infrastructure spending that would make Robert Moses blush.
This casino would serve as the nucleus for a burgeoning entertainment epicenter. All of the commercial, retail and residential “new suburbia” dreams would become reality as developers flock to construct a supporting economy within the glow of the Lighthouse Project. This presupposes that a deal could be reached with the Rechler/Wang power duo.
This project would have a negligible impact on traffic in the area to quiet the NIMBYists by funding a total overhaul of the public transportation network. A light rail system connecting the Casino to the Hempstead train station and Roosevelt Field? You got it. Widened roads with greater access to the Hub? Not a problem. Twenty-story complexes to house industry and residents surrounding the complex? Why not 30?
Of course, there are those who will fight tooth and nail against a casino on Long Island because of the filthy underbelly it represents. For many, casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods, prostitutes and bootlegging. Never mind that you can gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman with a leisure suit and a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out.
But let’s assume for a moment that Kate Murray of Hempstead, Ed Mangano of Nassau, Randy King of Shinnecock, and Charles Wang of everything else, are all in agreement that this plan should move past both the drawing board and the planning board. Then assume that the residents, community groups and environmentalists join hands and sing the praises of this proposal. Then assume the Islanders win the Stanley Cup. (OK, that was one step too far.) Even with all of these obstacles cleared, the single biggest one might surprise you: the gaming industry itself.
Technically, there is nothing that restricts sovereign Indian nations from building casinos on Indian land. Nothing, that is, but for the bigger sovereign known as the United States. Gambling operations existed on tribal land well before the U.S. government established the rules of engagement under Ronald Reagan with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. Even still there is theoretically nothing that would prevent a tribe from ignoring this Act (it’s a unilateral law, not a treaty) and opening a casino. It’s the gaming industry that operates within U.S. territory that provides the insurance policy against any casinos not blessed by the United States. The U.S. government would run any gaming manufacturer out of the country if it dared sell or license technology and support to a non-licensed operator that didn’t have U.S. approval. This is enough to dissuade any gaming company from doing business with tribes without an agreement in place with federal, state and local governments, which leads to the next issue…
Shinnecock will have many chefs in their kitchen (I’m resisting the “too many chiefs” reference) as they try to establish a casino in any state that begins with “New” and ends in “York.” Look no further than the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the six Off Track Betting regions in New York State, none of which turn a profit. NYRA only recently emerged bankruptcy but is still bleeding cash, New York City OTB just went into bankruptcy, and horse racing in New York is in danger of extinction as a result. This is due more to the financial mandates of the state than it is to the decline in betting revenues. New York State is in such dire financial straits that it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Albany acquiesces to the desire of the Nassau Republicans to revitalize their hopes for the Hub. Add to the mix that Sheldon Silver, hands down the most powerful politician in the state, detests gambling and you have a recipe for failure.
But the most powerful foe in this process won’t be the most immediate one. The “powers that be” with interests in Las Vegas simply cannot afford to allow a casino so close to New York City. Atlantic City might as well disappear completely. One can point to the success of the casinos operated by the Oneida and Seneca Nations located in upstate New York, not to mention Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, to understand that the closer to New York City you place a casino, the more successful it is. Then track the number of flights from the tri-state area with Vegas as the final destination and consider how important this market really is. A large-scale, sophisticated Class III gaming facility 40 minutes from New York City by train and in the center of Long Island is death for all the others. The politicians in New York City will be damned if they lose one reverse-commuting thrill seeker, the politicians upstate can’t afford the potential revenue and job losses and New Jersey, well, to hell with Jersey.
By going public with his discussions with Shinnecock, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is about to come face to face with the biggest challenge of his young administration. It’s no secret that the prior administration handed him a giant sack of financial meatballs and this could be the single most significant game-changing move. How he maneuvers through this process will either establish a new gilded age for Nassau County or set the stage for a calamitous one-term footnote in Long Island government history. Either way it will test the mettle of the dream team from Bethpage and set the tone for the next three and a half years in Nassau County.