Is a Catskill casino still in the cards?

For those wondering if efforts to bring a Las Vegas-style casino to the Catskills in New York is still in the cards, the answer is unfortunately “yes” – depending on what comes next.

By now, casino-watchers have learned that in February, the U.S. Interior Department rejected former Governor David Paterson's bid, in connection with the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe of Wisconsin, to build a massive “off-reservation” gambling complex on 333 acres of land abutting the Neversink River.

Today, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer was quoted as saying that, while he was disappointed by the Interior Department’s decision, he would explore “every possible way to try to bring” a casino to the Catskills.

This could be a tough hill to climb.  After all, the Neversink casino is the latest in a series of Indian casino proposals that eventually collapsed after New York governors unveiled them with great fanfare. This is why when Governor Paterson announced the scheme last November, we knew it was a long-shot, because the project faced significant legal hurdles – including the completion of a full and legally required environmental review – before it could gain final approval.

In the end, there's no doubt that concerns raised by environmentalists played a role in turning the tide against the Neversink casino.  And the protection of the Neversink River is good news for the bald eagles, ospreys, and other wildlife that live there, as well as for the millions of people who drink clean water drawn from the Catskills region.

But officially, the Interior Department didn't nix it on those grounds.  Instead, it based its rejection on two primary rationales:  First, that the terms of the 74-page gambling agreement – called a “compact” – submitted to the feds exceeds the scope of law enacted by Congress to govern Indian casinos.  And second, that there are serious questions about the legal viability of a separate land settlement agreement between New York and the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe inexorably connected to the proposed gambling compact.

So while the Interior Department’s rejection was a huge setback for the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe and the State, there is still an opening for this tribe or another tribe to come back with a new Catskills casino proposal that can somehow overcome these and other federal hurdles.

Further, it appears that the owners of the state’s racinos – which are a mix of horse racing and casinos – are planning to seek an amendment to New York’s Constitution to allow them to operate full-blown casinos with blackjack, roulette and other table games. (Right now, New York’s eight non-Indian racinos are limited to video slot machines and other video gambling games.)  This also would not be easy.  Any such amendment would have to be approved by two consecutive Legislatures, and then by voters statewide.

Image removed.

(Credit: Markus Ortner, Flickr)

But perhaps the latest setback for casino proponents can trigger a rethinking of how best to encourage much-needed economic development in the Catskill region. As I’ve written before, NRDC takes no position on gambling, and we strongly support the rights of Indian tribes to pursue economic self-determination. 

But we believe that instead of pushing massive casinos, we should encourage sustainable development which draws strength from the Catskills' outstanding natural resources, all-season outdoor recreation opportunities, historic villages, and rediscovered downtowns – such as the hugely successful Bethel Woods or the Center for Discovery, which is the largest private employer in Sullivan County.  Drawing on successful economic development models from other rural areas around the country, we should promote hiking, camping and fishing and other type of eco-tourism, expand universities in the region, and nurture new green energy and clean tech businesses. 

And let’s not forget about food.  The huge surge of interest in local food provides the Catskills with a unique opportunity to revitalize its agriculture production and establish itself as a central part of greater New York’s “foodshed.”

Even longtime Times Herald-Record columnist Barry Lewis – who favors a Catskills casino – agrees it's time to move on and start focusing on “revitalizing our main streets” and other achievable and critical economic development projects.

So here’s hoping that our elected officials will remember what Kenny Rogers sang in “The Gambler” – “You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."