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St. Lawrence County betting on casino

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County may be taking a long shot at attracting one of the casinos proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo but it cannot win if does not play.

“What the county is doing is betting,” said Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, who does not support the effort. “What are the odds? There’s a very small chance we’re going to get one.”

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.

“Upstate is the Catskills,” Mr. Acres said. “Anything north of the Thruway is Timbuktu.”

Putting together a good package could make the difference, such as when the north country was a big winner in the regional economic development competition, Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said.

“Nobody thought we had a snowball’s chance then and look what happened,” Mr. Burns said. “I think our chances are as good as anybody else. We have natural beauty, the St. Lawrence River and proximity to the Canadian market. It’s hard to get more upstate than St. Lawrence County. I don’t think anybody has the lead over anybody else at this point.”

Opening of any of the proposed casinos could take some time.

Having non-Indian casinos in the state would require action by the state Legislature — passage of an amendment adopted last year — and approval by voters in a statewide referendum.

Selection of sites will be made by the state Gaming Commission — a merger of the Racing and Wagering Board and the Division of the Lottery that is supposed to take place Feb. 1.

“It’s something that will be developed. There will be a procedure put in place,” said Lee R. Park, spokesman for the Racing and Wagering Board. “It’s premature at this point.”

Waiting for the process to shake out will not benefit the county, Mr. Burns said.

“I think it’s important we do get up to speed quickly,” he said. “We should put it out now to residents and see if there’s support.”

Being proactive is a good idea if the county determines a casino is something it wants, Dierdre K. Scozzafava, deputy state secretary of state for local government, said at a forum on the State of the State Wednesday in Gouverneur.

“I don’t think it hurts you,” she said. “I would pursue it.”

St. Lawrence County could also face obstacles because of the proximity of the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, which is operated by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in Hogansburg.

Gov. Cuomo has said the state would honor the exclusivity of gaming compacts in good standing, which is not the case with the St. Regis tribe. The tribe maintains that an unlicensed casino operated by Mohawks of the Warrior Society near Plattsburgh violates its exclusivity. As a result, the St. Regis tribe has withheld millions of dollars owed the state, which, in turn, pays a percentage to St. Lawrence and Franklin counties and the towns of Massena, Brasher, Bombay and Fort Covington.

The tribe’s response to any effort made by St. Lawrence County and of Alexandria Bay for a proposed racino in Jefferson County was to refer to Gov. Cuomo’s statement about honoring existing compacts where Native American casinos have coverage.

St. Lawrence County was scheduled to meet with representatives from St. Regis Thursday but the tribe cancelled the session after news broke of the county’s interest in a casino.

St. Lawrence County government could do better by its residents by focusing on other issues, Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said.

“Government should provide essential services. What part of essential services does a casino have?” he said. “I think we have higher priorities for the Board of Legislators. Our job is to balance the budget and set priorities for the county.”

Mr. Akins does not support pursuing a casino but he is not opposed either.

“If it happens, great,” he said. “I still would rather build something productive.”

The county would be further ahead promoting fishing and agriculture rather than a casino, which he considers a waste of time, Mr. Acres said.

“I think there’s more positive economic development we can focus on,” he said.

But Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, said he does not see a down side in going after a casino.

“The worst thing that can happen is we don’t get it,” he said. “It’s jobs. It’s money. It’s recreation.”

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