LET THE GAMES BEGIN; Senecas gamble on Buffalo Creek; Cayugas may reopen Class II parlors

Tom Wanamaker
12/28/05

More than four years after state legislation authorized six new Indian
casinos throughout upstate New York, a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony has
taken place for casino No. 3.

On Dec. 8, the Seneca Nation of Indians broke ground on a nine-acre tract
in downtown Buffalo for its third gaming operation, to be called the Seneca
Buffalo Creek Casino.

The groundbreaking culminates an arduous process of finding a site for this
Class III casino. The Senecas originally wanted to locate a casino in
Buffalo, but a dispute over the exact site drove the nation to the suburban
town of Cheektowaga, where it purchased a 57-acre plot near the Buffalo
Niagara International Airport. Gaming foes secured a court order in June
2004 preventing the nation from building there. According to the Buffalo
News, Cheektowaga is pursuing an appeal of that decision in hope of luring
the Senecas back to the suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Buffalo News reported that the Senecas and the Niagara
Frontier Transportation Authority are continuing negotiations to put the
casino in an old train station not far from where the groundbreaking took
place. Casino opponents remain vocal in Buffalo, but city officials hope to
use a new casino in conjunction with other planned retail development to
jump-start Buffalo's long-moribund economy.

In October 2001, the New York Legislature authorized the opening of six
Indian casinos in the state. Three of those were to be in the Catskills,
but none has even gotten off the proverbial drawing board as yet. The
Seneca Nation received exclusive rights to the trio of casinos in the
western part of the state, and has already opened Class III gaming halls in
Niagara Falls and on its Cattaraugus reservation. These casinos, as will
the third when it opens, operate under the terms of a state-tribal gaming
compact signed in April 2002.

In return for exclusivity, the nation pays Albany a percentage of the net
drop of its slot machines on a sliding scale of 18 percent for the first
four years, 22 percent for years five through seven, and 25 percent for the
remainder of the agreement. The term "net drop" refers to money dropped
into the machines, after paying out prizes but before expenses. Local
governments receive a portion of these "revenue sharing" payments.

A CAYUGA COMEBACK?

Is the Cayuga Nation poised for a return to gaming? According to a report
in the Dec. 7 edition of the Syracuse Post-Standard, that could happen,
although no timetable was given.

In early October, the nation announced the closure of its two small Class
II gambling operations in the central New York towns of Union Springs and
Seneca Falls. Long hostile to the nation's desire to reclaim sovereignty
over its former reservation land, Seneca County officials passed a
resolution calling gambling a public nuisance and threatened to forcibly
shut down the nation's Seneca Falls operation.

Union Springs made similar threats after a federal judge, citing the City
of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York decision, lifted an
injunction that prohibited local officials from enforcing their laws on
tribal property. The nation decided to voluntarily close the two facilities
rather than risk a violent confrontation.

In light of their "gambling is a nuisance" ordinance, here's a question for
the members of the Seneca County Legislature: How selective are you going
to be in enforcing this law? Do you plan on closing down all the taverns
offering keno-like Quick Draw games? What about the convenience stores that
peddle scratch-off games and lottery tickets -- are you going to force them
to close down as well?

Of course not. This ordinance is aimed solely and blatantly at Indian
gaming operations and has no purpose other than to deprive the Cayuga
Indian Nation of a legitimate means of creating a financial footing for
economic development.

None other than the National Indian Gaming Commission, the federal
regulator of tribally owned gambling operations, has authorized the tribal
government to conduct gaming on its lands. After the Sherrill decision, the
exact status of the two gaming sites (which lie within the original Cayuga
reservation and were legally acquired in fee simple transactions from
willing sellers) remains in limbo, although the nation, in accordance with
Sherrill, has applied for federal trust status.

It is this "limbo" situation that is allowing power-hungry local leaders to
flex their muscles while inflaming and pandering to anti-Indian sentiment.
There has been no word from BIA as to when a decision might be made on the
Cayuga land-into-trust application -- it could take up to a year or even
longer.

Memories of the brutal raid by Rhode Island State Police on a
reservation-based tobacco shop in July 2003 still resonate throughout
Indian country. In voluntarily shuttering their Class II parlors, the
Cayugas were simply trying to avoid an attack on their rights and property.

The Cayuga Indian Nation has repeatedly tried to be a good neighbor. It is
both ironic and unfortunate that in order to protect its property, the
tribe sees no other recourse than to close its doors and lose out on a
potentially lucrative revenue stream.

In the meantime, county officials will likely maintain their hypocritical
stance against Indian gaming while allowing Quick Draw, lottery and
scratch-off games to proliferate ... even as their profits are sucked into
the black hole that is Albany's general fund, never to be seen again.

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