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Feb 6, 2013 9:36 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Tribe Partners Had Plans For Casino And Mall In Queens

Feb 6, 2013 10:30 AM

An investigation by a New York City nonprofit community watchdog has revealed some details of a long-rumored bid by the Shinnecock Indian Nation and its casino development partners to build a casino adjacent to the New York Mets ballpark in Queens.

A review of public bid documents released this week by the group City Limits shows that a partnership between the tribe’s Detroit-based casino partners and the corporation that owns the Mets had submitted a proposal for a 900,000-square-foot casino, 500-room hotel and 1.8-million-square-foot shopping mall near the Mets stadium, Citi Field. The development group initially was awarded the development bid for 61 acres of land known as Willets Point, now inhabited by dozens of light industry businesses. The agreement also would have given the developers permission to build the casino and hotel on 66 acres of what is now parking lots on the Citi Field property.

The development proposal had been submitted after an official request for proposals by the city and included detailed development schematics—showing movie theaters, dozens of retail shops and other entertainment venues—and plans for getting around concerns about cleaning up pollution and constructing expensive infrastructure.

Though the tribe has a decade-old contract with Gateway Casino Resorts for its hoped-for development of a casino, the $100 million bid for the purchase of the Willets Point land actually was made by a separate corporation, called Triple M Development, which the report says is owned by Gateway’s principals: Marian and Michael Ilitch, the billionaire owners of the Little Caesars Pizza chain and the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers pro sports franchises, and their partner, Michael Malik.

Despite being the winning bid in the initial RFP, the casino proposal, which appears to have had support in the New York State Legislature, was dropped by the city when the plans for the development of the property were put forth last summer by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. The city’s plans instead favored a mix of residential and commercial development. As a result, the Shinnecocks appear to no longer be involved in development of the Citi Field site.

A request for comment from Shinnecock tribal leader Randy King was not returned.

The revelation of the extent of the Willets Point proposal dumped fuel on the fire of outrage from a group of tribe members who were ousted from leadership roles last year, ostensibly because they had been working on a possible tribal development at the Nassau Coliseum property without informing tribe members. Pointing to documents in the Willets Point bid proposal that showed members of the Tribal Trustees at the time were intimately involved in the proposal’s crafting, the ousted officials said the revelations about the project highlight that the effort to remove them was hypocritical and likely driven by a desire to quiet questions the men had raised about the tribe’s contract with Gateway.

“What we were working on never reached the level of sophistication that this did,” said Charles Randall, a tribe member who had been working with the Tribal Trustees on the Nassau Coliseum deal. “We were in the discussion phase—they already had an RFP. They already had worked out the whole scope of the project. We never got to that phase.”

The Nassau Coliseum proposal was killed last summer when attorneys for Gateway sent a letter to the investment firm Mr. Randall and two members of the tribe’s Gaming Authority, Phil Brown and Barre Hamp, had been working with on the possibility of purchasing the Coliseum land.

In recent interviews, Mr. Brown and Mr. Hamp said that they had been told in early 2012 by Tribal Trustees Randy King, Fred Bess and Gerrod Smith that they were “working on something in the city” but were not aware of the extent of the project’s development until months later. Both men said that nobody within the tribe was told the deal was even in the works.

Mr. Bess and Mr. Smith lost reelection to the Tribal Trustees that April, replaced by Lance Gumbs and Gordell Wright. With a new round of contract negotiations looming, and Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Wright raising concerns about several details of agreements reached by their predecessors and Gateway, a group of tribe members leveled accusations of official impropriety against the men, primarily based on their work on the Nassau Coliseum deal without have informed tribe members. Tribe members voted in October to depose Mr. Gumbs, Mr. Wright, Mr. Hamp and Mr. Brown, and to bar Mr. Randall from representing the tribe. In December, Mr. King unilaterally appointed three men, including Mr. Bess, to serve as interim Trustees until tribal elections this spring.

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