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St. Lawrence County will vie for casino

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County wants to be at the front of the line for one of three casinos proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for upstate.

At a Monday committee meeting, a majority of legislators approved working with their economic enhancement committee, other elected officials, the county Chamber of Commerce and county Industrial Development Agency to push St. Lawrence to the forefront.

“It’s in an exploratory stage,” said Legislative Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Cuomo proposed three casinos outside of New York City as a way to revitalize the economy and boost tourism upstate. Other communities also are beginning to talk about their interest in hosting a casino, including Tupper Lake. A competition is expected to pick the locations.

The county needs to gather its economic development and tourism specialists to map out a strategy, said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, the chairman of the Legislature’s Economic Enhancement Committee.

“The governor hasn’t been specific in what we need to do,” Mr. Burns said. “The more we have involved, the better.”

The state Legislature passed a constitutional amendment last year allowing up to seven casinos.

To take effect, the amendment would have to be approved again by the Legislature and passed by voters in November.

Casinos that operate upstate are all controlled by American Indians, and Gov. Cuomo said the state would honor existing gambling compacts in good standing.

He specifically mentioned the Senecas — who operate casinos in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Salamanca — but not the Mohawks, who operate a casino in Franklin County, County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

Neither the state’s compact with the Senecas nor the St. Regis Indian Reservation is in good standing. The Senecas have withheld millions from the state in protest of operations at racetracks in their coverage area.

St. Regis also has held back money owed the state because of a dispute over gaming exclusivity. More than $12 million is owed to St. Lawrence and Franklin counties and the towns of Massena, Brasher, Bombay and Fort Covington. The problem: a small, unlicensed Native American casino has been operating for years on state land about 20 miles northwest of Plattsburgh.

The Mohawks of St. Regis say the Mohawks of the Warrior Society who run the small casino in Altona violate their exclusivity agreement with the state.

The loss of revenue has hurt the county, which could be eased by a state-sanctioned casino, said Legislator Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk.

“It’s worth pursuing,” she said. “That opens up the door to get some money.”

The county hired Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, in August to offer advice and to represent it in a lawsuit if it pursues one for the withheld funds. The county met with tribal representatives in December and is scheduled to have another meeting Thursday.

“We need to be very careful how we approach this,” Mrs. Brothers said. “This is a sensitive issue.”

Legislator Gregory M. Paquin, D-Massena, was absent and Legislators Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, and Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, were against pushing for a casino.

The county has better opportunities to pursue in agriculture than in gaming, which could result in more people with gambling addictions, Mr. Acres said.

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