Shinnecock Nation rolls dice on Southampton casino

Pressed for cash, the tribe revives a long-running saga in its quest for a downstate gaming license

Shinnecock Indian Nation Chairman Bryan Polite (left) and a rendering of the Southampton casino (Photos courtesy of Facebook and Shinnecock Indian Nation)
Shinnecock Indian Nation Chairman Bryan Polite (left) and a rendering of the Southampton casino (Photos courtesy of Facebook and Shinnecock Indian Nation)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Shinnecock Nation is planning to build a casino in Southampton.

The tribe’s on-again, off-again project is on again, perhaps because a license for a full-fledged downstate casino is up for grabs.

The tribe’s Southampton reservation is beyond the state’s control and it needs no permission from New York for the 76,000-square-foot casino it aims to build there. But a license from the state is far more appealing, as it would allow for a vastly broader array of games and a more accessible location — and thus much more revenue.

That’s important for a tribe so hard-pressed for cash that it recently erected two electronic billboards along Sunrise Highway despite warnings from state regulators that they were illegal.

Shinnecock Nation leaders say they have grown frustrated with New York state, which, instead of working with them to secure an alternative site for gaming, allowed Jake’s 58 Hotel & Casino to open in Islandia four years ago. The tribe’s venue, like Jake’s, will be what the industry calls a Class II facility, which is far more limited than the Class III venues of Las Vegas, Atlantic City and James Bond movies. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, passed by Congress in 1988, regulates the type of gambling permitted on Native American lands.

The Southampton-based tribe envisions approximately 1,000 bingo slots and a limited poker option on its reservation. That kind of setup has been a big hit for Jake’s, which is conveniently off the Long Island Expressway and smack in the middle of Long Island. Jake’s, which was recently sold to Suffolk Off-Track Betting in a $120 million deal, is seeking to double its count of 1,000 gaming terminals.

The Shinnecock’s site, by contrast, would require gamblers to slog through the infamous traffic bottleneck that separates the New York metropolitan area’s 20 million people from some of the most coveted beach communities on the planet.

Meanwhile, online sports betting is becoming more popular. And on Long Island, it’s easy to take a ferry to Foxwoods in Connecticut, which offers the kind of Vegas-style casino the Shinnecocks cannot have on their reservation.

How can the Shinnecocks compete? Many think they can’t.

“I doubt the casino is economically viable, and it certainly would have an adverse impact,” said Fred Thiele, who represents the area in the state Assembly. “It’s on a peninsula with only a two-lane road in and out.”

That sentiment is widely shared among Southampton town and village officials. About 200 local residents have joined an organization called the Hamptons Neighborhood Group, whose website proclaims, “Working to improve the Hamptons environment and quality of life for all residents and visitors.”

Mission No. 1: Stop the casino.

“The overriding issue is the fact that they want to build a casino adjacent to a two-lane road that is already very congested,” said James Wacht, a local property owner and spokesperson for the group. “And they would expect a million visitors a year with no place for people to stay overnight. Most people who know the Hamptons know that the traffic’s pretty bad, and this will just make it much worse.”

Privately, the Shinnecocks, who did not respond to press inquiries by press time, almost certainly agree.

“In my conversations with the tribal trustees, they certainly would rather have another location for the casino,” Thiele said. “But the governor’s office has never negotiated in good faith with them. They basically ignored the Shinnecocks in favor of private gaming interests.”

The veteran lawmaker has grown so frustrated that he introduced a bill that would require the governor to negotiate in good faith if the Shinnecocks pursued an off-site location. The measure has not passed, and even if it did, legislating Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s bargaining mindset is like giving instructions to your cat.

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But the Shinnecocks’ authority to open a casino where state and local officials don’t want one gives them some leverage to snag one of the three available downstate gaming licenses. They are going to need it.

The Shinnecocks will be up against such deep-pocketed opponents as Bally’s and MGM. An impoverished tribal nation cannot hope to muster the lobbying strength of these powerhouses, although tribes have been known to partner with established gaming companies to boost their political and financial standing.

With that in mind, the Shinnecocks signed a development deal in September with the Seminole Tribe–owned Hard Rock Hotel & Casino chain. Bryan Polite, the Shinnecocks’ tribal chairman, said at the time that the partnership would look at development sites across Long Island, including in Nassau County.

Riverhead eyed

Any spot beyond the 800-acre Shinnecock Neck reservation would need Albany’s sign-on.

“The Shinnecocks have been painted into a corner where they’ve not been able to work out an arrangement to find an alternate site,” Wacht said. His group blames Cuomo more than it does the tribe and maintains hope for an agreement.

“We think Riverhead or Calverton would be a very good location for a casino,” he said. “There’s a lot of land that can be developed for commercial purposes, including a parcel that’s right next to Tanger Outlet Center.”

Tanger is among the busiest shopping complexes in the state. Minutes away is Splish Splash, a popular water park, and Riverhead Raceway, a short track for modified Nascar-style cars.

“I think having a casino next to a shopping destination next to the water-slide park next to the racetrack would be a nice little entertainment district,” Wacht said helpfully.

At the same time, Jay Schneiderman, the Southampton Town supervisor, has come up with non-casino development ideas for the Shinnecocks’ land — a hotel and spa, for example. Schneiderman points out that the Shinnecocks own an acre in Hampton Bays, straddling Sunrise Highway, the location of the controversial billboards.

“They have asked if they could build a rest area there,” he said. “They need cooperation from New York state because they’d need on- and off-ramps for the rest area, which would include a restaurant and big gas station. That would be extremely profitable.”

Schneiderman has pledged to help. But he is under no illusions about the tribe’s goal.

“What the Shinnecocks really want is one of the three downstate commercial gaming licenses that the governor has promised to issue,” he said. “And I think they believe they’ll get one by saying that they will build a casino in the Hamptons in the one spot that they’re entitled to do it, unless they get the commercial license that would allow them to do it somewhere else.”

One of the new state licenses could go to Resorts World Casino, a no-dealer facility at Aqueduct Race Track that has been doing a robust business since opening in 2011. A second could go to the other so-called racino downstate, Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway.

That leaves one. The town supervisor has pledged to help the Shinnecocks win it.

“I’m urging people to work with us and find a location, find partners who can help them compete more effectively for a commercial license,” he said. “This is their last resort.”