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Jul 20, 2009 3:23 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Upstate tribe a role model for Indian gaming success

Jul 20, 2009 3:23 PM

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which opened the door for hundreds of impoverished Native American tribes to open gambling facilities as a means of economic self-sufficiency, is a murky topic for debate.

For a tiny percentage of the Indian tribes around the country, casinos have brought immense wealth and positive results. For many tribes, however, the gaming facilities have provided little economic benefit for tribal members and have often opened a Pandora’s box of new pitfalls.

Many Needs

For the Shinnecock Indian Nation, the need for economic stimulus is undeniable.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than half of the approximately 500 people who reside on the reservation just outside Southampton Village live below the national poverty level. The median income for a family living on the reservation is just over $14,000.

Since the tribe began its casino quest, contracts with outside development interests have brought in approximately $1 million a year to the tribe, some of which goes to pay the salaries of the approximately 30 tribe members who are now employed by the tribal government. A casino, if near enough to the reservation, could potentially provide hundreds more jobs. It could also give a financial boost to the various programs the tribe, which is not yet federally recognized, now struggles to operate on meager government grants.

Tribal Trustees Chairman Randy King points out that the roadways on the reservation are crumbling. Houses are deteriorating, and since most tribe members can’t get mortgages or home equity loans—as almost no Native Americans living on reservations can, because the reservation land they live on cannot be privately owned—they struggle to piece together money for maintenance or repairs.

With minimal funding from grants, the Shinnecock education program labors to be much more than an after-school care program, and it shares a small building with an equally strapped senior citizens program that provides a few hot lunches to poor seniors and organizes a few activities. The reservation medical center provides remedial care and, recently, dental check-ups, with help from the state and Southampton Hospital. And various cultural programs are popular with the tribes’ young people but are limited by scant funds to broaden their scope or sophistication.

“They’re doing the best they can, but we’re living off grants,” Mr. King said this week. “We need to get computers for the education center. We need our roads repaired. Our houses need roofs and new windows.”

A Source of Jobs

If the tribe is able to successfully navigate the labyrinthine federal and state processes that would allow them to open one, a casino could benefit members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation—but how it will provide those benefits is apparently still a topic of debate within the tribe. Some say a Shinnecock casino should be looked at as a potential source of jobs; other say it can be simply a source of income based on the revenue a casino would generate—possibly as much as $1 billion a year for a gaming facility close to New York City, according to one forecast. Deciding which option is best to provide the assistance the tribe needs likely will dictate where the Shinnecocks seek to build, when and if the time comes.

The Oneida Indian Nation’s successes upstate could well be looked at as the perfect role model for the Shinnecocks, both in terms of what a casino development could become and how the revenues could be put to good use.

The Oneidas’ 1,200-acre Turning Stone resort development, which includes several hotels, five golf courses, a concert hall, and numerous dining and nightlife venues, as well as a casino, is a supersized photocopy of the sort of development the Shinnecocks had originally envisioned for the Westwoods property in Hampton Bays, and one that is still a guiding vision for a development in other areas. Tapping into the revenue potential of family vacationers, concert attendees and culturally interested day-trippers to augment the massive revenues from gamblers has become increasingly important in lean economic times when casinos around the country are seeing their gaming income tumble.

But it’s how the Oneida have managed their casino wealth and what they have done with their newfound income since opening their first gaming hall 16 years ago, the first of its kind in New York State, that makes them the ultimate example of what Indian gaming was supposed to do for Native American tribes.

Perhaps most prescient to the Shinnecocks’ own internal debates at the moment is the tribe’s reliance on Turning Stone as an employer. Of the Oneidas’ 1,200 members, more than 400 individuals work somewhere on the Turning Stone property. There is no shortage of available jobs—the tribe employs more than 5,000 people in all.

“Basically, anybody that wants a job can have a job. There is zero unemployment,” said Keller George, the chief of the Oneida tribe, in a recent interview. “When we started our development, there were a number of large manufacturing firms in the region—Carrier, General Electric, General Motors. Those have all closed. We would have nothing, but we’re able to provide for our people, and the whole community.”

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