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Akwesasne Mohawk casino. Photo: David Sommerstein
Akwesasne Mohawk casino. Photo: David Sommerstein

What the Mohawk casino deal means for the North Country

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Mohawk tribal chiefs joined Governor Cuomo in Albany yesterday to announce a new deal on casino exclusivity.

They signed off on settling a long-running dispute over revenues from the Mohawks' Akwesasne Casino near Massena. In return, the Mohawks will get exclusive gaming rights in the 8-county North Country region.

David Sommerstein joined Martha Foley to sort out what the deal means for the North Country and the Mohawk land claim.

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MARTHA: First, David, a brief summary of the dispute that was causing the tribe to withhold money it was supposed to share with New York and St. Lawrence and Franklin counties…

DAVID: The Mohawks' casino compact with New York is from 1999, renewed in 2005. It gave the Mohawks exclusive gaming rights in the region for their casino near Massena. But a band of Mohawks in Altona in  Clinton county, the Ganienkeh community, opened a bingo and slot machine parlor.

Because the state wouldn’t close it down, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe withheld revenue it was supposed to share with the state and the counties, saying Ganienkeh was violating the exclusivity and the state was letting them.

OK, so this deal Governor Cuomo and the tribe announced yesterday will resume that revenue sharing. That’s a big deal, considering the counties’ financial distress these days. How much money will they get and when?

Yes, the Mohawks will pay New York $30 million dollars in back payments. Of that, St. Lawrence and Franklin counties will see an immediate $3.75 million each. And then they’ll get their ongoing share of revenues from the casino. Overall, the Mohawks will give 25% of the casino revenues to New York, which is then divided up various ways.

The point is the local governments are desperate for this money. Of St. Lawrence county’s 14% tax levy increase this year, 4% would have been made up by this withheld casino revenue. The state comptroller recently said St. Lawrence County was “walking a financial tightrope” and needed a long-term plan. This helps.

State Senator Betty Little said the deal marked “a good day for the North Country.”

In exchange for resolving the revenue dispute, the Mohawks will get exclusive gaming rights in the 8 counties of the North Country. That basically eliminates the North Country from contention for one of the three state-run casinos Governor Cuomo wants to open. What do local leaders think about that?

Well, I guess you could say it's a "bird in the hand is worth two in the bush"situation. Yes, Ogdensburg and other places had been angling for one of those casinos. St. Lawrence County lawmaker Fred Morrill was one of the most outspoken on this. But he acknowledged over the phone yesterday it was a bit of a long shot.

“The thought was that it could be a game changer and make St. Lawrence County a destination and things like that," said Morrill. "It was a bit of a long shot anyway, and if we can benefit from the casino that’s here in a meaningful and fair way, I’m fine with that settlement.”

Now what about the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. This has to be seen as good news financially for them. But there are also other issues tied up in all this, like the decades-old land claim. A recent deal with the Oneida Nation ended their land claim. What happens here?

This deal does not resolve the Mohawk land claim, which covers 12,000 acres in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. In fact, at yesterday’s press conference in Albany, the chiefs were talking more about the land than the casino money. Chief Ron La France said, "our land is the most important thing we could have."

Cuomo said yesterday he would convene new discussions about the land claim soon. The Associated Press reports this morning that could be as early as 10 days from today. LaFrance says the talks with focus on 5,000 to 7,000 acres east of the reservation.

Still, the casino money is no small thing. The Mohawks just held a grand opening last week for a $72 million luxury hotel at the Akwesasne Mohawk casino.

Today at noon, they’ll be holding a press conference there to talk more about this deal.

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