By ALLISON STOKES
Think back to two summers ago. It’s 2013, before theNew York state referendum making casino gambling legal.
David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, has come to Seneca County to interview people. His conversation with Jeff Shipley is later published — in Blankenhorn’s book about why Gov. Cuomo’s push for casino gambling as a tool for economic development is regressive policy. Blankenhorn writes:
“The director of the Seneca County Chamber of Commerce, a family man in his thirties who said that he himself occasionally visits Las Vegas or Atlantic City to gamble, told me that most Seneca County merchants and business leaders oppose casino expansion. Casino gambling impoverishes people, he said, and ‘we already have poor people.’
“He reported a ‘strong general feeling’ against Indian-sponsored gambling in the region, and said that casino gambling sponsored by New York State would not help, and would likely hurt, the local businesses whose owners are Chamber of Commerce members. People going to casinos means that those people are ‘not going to our restaurants’ and ‘not going to our shops.’
“He also pointed out that many leaders in politics and business now stress the importance of ‘sustainability.’ They regularly urge sustainable agriculture, sustainable economic growth, and sustainable business models. Casinos move us in the opposite direction: ‘Casinos are not sustainable anything.’”
Fast-forward to Feb. 13, 2014. Wealthy developer Tom Wilmot is proposing a $350 million casino, and the countyChamber of Commerce is enthusiastically hosting a rollout event at the Holiday Inn. Executive Director Shipley has flip-flopped. I am there, and I am appalled. Money speaks.
By June, Wilmot’s project has grown more grandiose. It’s a $425 million resort and casino. It will overlook the state Thruway, the Petro Center and the noxious-smelling Seneca Meadows Landfill. The notion this will become a resort destination for tourists is fantasy.
The Tyre Town Board unanimously endorses the project. The county supervisors unanimously endorse the project. The county IDA unanimously offers Wilmot whopping tax breaks because he admits that without them his project would necessarily be scaled back.
Huge numbers of people are opposed to the casino and to the IDA’s financial “inducement” package for Wilmot. We write letters. We sign petitions. We offer reasoned arguments. They are ignored. Our voices are shut out.
Even so, following the lead of Wilmot himself, elected leaders falsely claim there is minuscule opposition to Lago. The untruth is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact.
I meet with Jeff Shipley at the Chamber’s building on Sept. 19, 2014. What was he thinking when he reversed himself and became a Lago cheerleader? Jeff explains that for future economic development, the county badly needs infrastructure on Route 318, and Wilmot’s casino will bring it.
An open public debate on this momentous issue never takes place. The democratic process is sabotaged as opponents ask questions that are not answered, and raise valid concerns that receive no response. The Tyre Town Board, county supervisors, and the IDA have betrayed the public trust.
On Dec. 21, 2015 the Gaming Commission announces its pre-determined decision to license Lago.
Because “litigation is necessary when public officials abandon their public responsibilities,” aggrieved citizens are in court.
At year’s end the supervisors pass a resolution demanding Lago opponents “stand down.” Turning a deaf ear in the past, they now attempt to bully their own constituents into abandoning the court fight for justice.
Supervisor Bob Shipley again plays the race card: the Oneidas are to blame. In fact, by offering financial assistance to county residents who have maxed out their own resources, our Native American sisters and brothers have evened the playing field and disrupted Wilmot’s power monopoly.
As long as court cases are pending, Mr. Wilmot’s gaming license does not determine the future. He arrogantly moves forward with site work. It’s a high-stakes gamble.
And even before construction, the reality of Lago’s significant negative environmental impact is what Seneca County is now experiencing. Bullying and scapegoating are unraveling the fabric of our community.