Tribe’s recognition draws possibility of casino closer

Jan Burman hopes to see a Shinnecock Indian Nation casino built on land he owns at the former Northrop Grumman property in Calverton. The tribe is looking at that and other locations.

The Shinnecock Indian Nation received federal recognition Tuesday, a crucial step that could pave the way for the tribe to build a casino on eastern Long Island.

The formal recognition came just days after a Garden City developer made a pitch to the Suffolk County Gaming Task Force on the benefits of building a Shinnecock casino at the former Northrop Grumman property in Calverton.

Jan Burman, president of Engel Burman Group, said the casino could be a Las Vegas- or Atlantic City-type destination right in Calverton. He described the land as “shovel ready” and said construction of a casino could begin as early as the day after plans were drawn.

“If you want to be in the ground quickly, we feel this is your best option,” he told members of the task force during a forum at the county’s William H. Rogers Building in Smithtown last Thursday.

The task force was formed as a way to present potential Suffolk casino sites to the tribe and to influence members to build the project locally.

Mr. Burman, who purchased the targeted 95-acre property in Calverton from Riverhead Town in 2001, was the only developer to make a pitch Thursday. The parcel, located just off Route 25, is separate from the 755 acres where the Riverhead Resorts group is seeking to build eight themed resorts, including an indoor ski mountain.

County Legislator Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), who sits on the task force, pointed to one study that found Long Islanders spend $400 million annually at Connecticut casinos Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, and added that a Suffolk casino would create about 1,000 local jobs.

“Shouldn’t we be in that mix?” he asked.

Mr. Horsley said the task force is also exploring the former Shoreham nuclear power plant, Brookhaven’s Calabro Airport and a county-owned property in Yaphank known as Legacy Village as potential casino locations.

Wherever the Shinnecocks decide to build, that land will be taken off the tax rolls.

Mr. Burman noted that if the tribe chose the Calverton site, they would most likely strike some deal with Riverhead Town as compensation for no longer paying taxes.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he would request a meeting with the tribe to discuss how serious they are about putting the casino in Riverhead Town. He said he was against the idea of a Calverton casino, but added he would keep an open mind, given that the project is most likely years away from completion.

“My position on gambling is, show us how it is good for Riverhead,” he said.

Mr. Walter added that there’s no guarantee the tribe would make payments in lieu of taxes to offset the increased police and fire department burdens the casino would undoubtedly necessitate.

“Casinos don’t pay tax revenue,” he said. “Everybody thinks they are going to get some sort of lucrative PILOT payments, but thinking that doesn’t necessarily equate to reality.”

Mr. Burman said the property is currently zoned for more than a million square feet of new development. He said the site would be accessible by car, train, ferry and possibly charter plane.

One of the site’s biggest advantages, he said, was that it has no adjacent residential neighbors.

“We think there is a need for gaming locally,” Mr. Burman said. “We are firm believers that if people are going to gamble somewhere it should be in their backyards.”

Mr. Burman said that as of now, the site is only easily accessible from the Long Island Expressway via the William Floyd Parkway exit, but he said an exit with direct access to the former Grumman site, where for decades the naval contractor assembled fighter jets, could be petitioned for later.

The Calverton site, located about 20 miles from the Southampton reservation, would also allow tribe members to commute to the casino.

Shinnecock tribal trustee Lance Gumbs said he was interested in Mr. Burman’s proposal but that a decision was a long way off.

“It’s one of the sites that we’ll definitely take a look at,” said Mr. Gumbs, adding that the tribe would optimally be looking for a larger swath of land. “I do have concerns about the access.”

The Burman plan was better received by residents at the meeting than either the power plant site or the airport site, both of which have drawn opposition from locals.

John Paulson of the Manor Park Civic Association said Mr. Burman’s plan was preferable to building a casino at Brookhaven’s Calabro Airport in Shirley because it’s not located near any residential neighborhoods.

“It does not interfere with the communities,” he said of the Calverton site. “I love it.”

The news of Tuesday’s federal recognition was met with a positive response from local elected leaders. Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said the move was long overdue.

“Today’s decision rights a historic wrong and now we begin a new chapter in our relationship with our neighbors, the Shinnecock Indian Nation,” he said. “I look forward to continuing my productive work with tribal leaders to improve the standard of living on the Shinnecock Reservation and encourage responsible, sustainable economic development which benefits our entire community.”

Federal recognition is about more than exemptions. It also makes tribes eligible to participate in federal assistance programs. Through these programs, tribal governments may receive funds they can then use to provide community services, such as health clinics.

There are more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the United States, with a total membership of about 1.7 million.

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