OUR VIEW: State should deny Lago gaming license – Utica OD

By OBSERVER-DISPATCH

Posted Nov. 22, 2015 at 3:45 AM

A main criticism of the Oneida Nation’s strong opposition to the proposed Lago Resort and Casino in the Seneca County Town of Tyre is the argument that the Nation doesn’t want any competition. That’s not quite accurate.

The key reason the Oneida Indian Nation and others oppose Lago is due to the fact that the development would violate the original idea behind expanded casino gambling in New York state — to provide economic development. The Nation did not oppose such expansion; in fact, it supported last year’s constitutional amendment to do that because the goal was to create more jobs.

It’s a job shuffle

But siting a casino near Thruway Exit 41, just 70 miles from Turning Stone, does not aim toward that goal. More likely it would just shift many of the jobs that the Nation already has created to another community down the road. That’s something the state Gaming Commission needs to seriously consider before granting Lago a license. And it’s something every single taxpayer in Oneida and Madison counties should be concerned about.

Here’s why:

In accordance with the settlement reached in May 2013 by the state of New York and Oneida and Madison counties with the Oneida Indian Nation, the state gets 25 percent of the take from the slot machines, or $50 million of the Nation’s estimated $200 million total. Oneida County gets 25 percent of that, or $12.5 million a year. The county also gets another $2.5 million annually for 20 years to offset associated property tax losses. That’s approximately $15 million.

Local revenue could suffer

But if Lago comes to fruition, those numbers could tumble like a house of cards. As gaming expenditures and employment move from one community to another, slot revenue drops and so does the state and county share of the proceeds. That money already has been built into the county budget, which means programs it’s helping to fund would need to be cut or picked up by taxpayers.

Furthermore, as casino revenues fall, fewer employees are needed, so local jobs and the economic pluses they bring are lost.

How is this economic development?

Bad plan made worse

We have opposed legalized gambling as an economic engine for New York state from the start. It was clear from the Atlantic City casino implosion what over-saturation can do, but state voters approved the amendment anyway. As a result, a state Gaming Facility Location board was created and authorized to issue up to four casino licenses — including one each in the Hudson Valley/Catskills area, in the “Capital Region” and in the Finger Lakes area. After outcry from communities near the Pennsylvania border, the fourth license recently was recommended for Tioga Downs.

At the time, the board was concerned over “cannibalization” either of the other new licensees or of existing Native American casinos and state racinos. According to The (Bergen County) Record — NorthJersey.com, the board recognized that a casino in Orange County “could generate substantial revenues as a result of proximity to New York City,” but it also noted that added competition in either Orange or Sullivan counties “could destabilize the health of a single project in the traditional Catskills area.” As a result, an Orange County casino was rejected.

Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO Ray Halbritter argues that the same should hold true with Lago. Lago officials have said publicly that their casino would pull half its visitors away from existing casinos.

“The intention (of siting casinos) was that the regions were broken up so there wouldn’t be that much proximity from one casino to another,” said Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente. “This does violate that, and that’s a concern.”

Don’t discount facts

Unfortunately, anti-Oneida sentiment drives much of the argument. Be that as it may, these facts cannot be denied:

— The Oneida Nation is the largest employer in Oneida and Madison counties with 4,572 employees. Here is where many of those employees buy homes, pay taxes to support schools and municipalities, buy groceries and other goods, help local clubs and organizations and create a foundation for future growth. The Nation’s enterprises also draw other business to the area — it’s been a catalyst for growth around the resort — not to mention the goods and services required for the operation to flourish.

— The Oneida Nation operation at Turning Stone is not just about gambling. It operates restaurants, golf courses and plans future retail development.

— The bond between the Oneidas and the people of Central New York is one of the oldest friendships in America. The Oneidas were the only tribe to support the colonial cause during the Revolutionary War. But history has not been kind to that alliance. Oneida land was compromised after the war despite promises made to our first allies, resulting in land claims and land-into-trust issues that tarnished the relationship.

— The May 2013 agreement ended those lawsuits that spanned decades and were costing taxpayers millions of dollars. And it began a process of healing. It also has given rise to new partnerships that benefit both sides. For instance, the fact that our region was awarded the 2015 American Hockey League All-Star Game was due largely to the fact that we were able to provide two wonderful venues — Turning Stone resort and the Utica Memorial Auditorium.

Transparent process?

One cannot help wonder why work is underway at the proposed Lago site when decisions on licensing have not yet been announced. The Gaming Commission is reviewing the applications now and is expected to announce by the end of the year who will get a license. If the state plans to stay true to its own plan for legalized gambling, Lago should not be among them.

And if this follows the “transparency” philosophy espoused by Andrew Cuomo since he became governor, the Gaming Commission will make public the process by which licensing was decided — and provide reasons — for granting the casino licenses.

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