MONTICELLO, NY-A new frontrunner in the race to build a casino in the Catskills has emerged–the Cayuga Nation of New York’s proposal to build a $500-million casino on land adjacent to Monticello Raceway here. Empire Resorts Inc., a partner in the proposed Cayuga Catskills Resort project, says the Eastern Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has recommended its fee-to-trust application be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The BIA’s findings include recommendations that the subject property be taken into trust for the benefit of the Cayuga Nation and that the development of a Native American gaming facility at Monticello Raceway be found to be in the best interest of the Cayuga Nation, and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community, Empire Resorts officials say. The application is still subject to further review by state and federal officials, including approval by the Secretary of Interior. In addition, the Cayuga Nation of New York must receive approval of its fee in fee to trust application from Gov. George Pataki and a gaming compact must be finalized between the Cayuga Nation and the State of New York.

Charles Degliomini, a spokesman for Empire Resorts, terms the positive recommendation by the Eastern Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs as “a significant step closer” to the start of construction. Empire Resorts will be the developer of the casino project and operate the facility once it is operational. He adds, “There are productive negotiations going on between the State of New York and the Cayugas.”

In mid-April, organized labor and the chief parties behind the Cayuga Catskill Resort finalized a project labor agreement for the facility that will be built on 30 acres of land adjacent to the raceway.

Empire Resorts officials refused to predict when construction might begin on the casino project that will entail 600,000 sf of gaming floor area. The casino will create approximately 1,500 construction jobs and 3,000 jobs at the facility once in operation, according to company estimates.

Hank Bunce, president of the Ulster, Sullivan, Delaware and Green Counties Building and Construction Trade Council, which was a party to the PLA agreement on the casino, also termed the recommendation by the Eastern Regional office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs as “significant.” He added that with the PLA in place, construction could begin the day after all approvals are received for the project.

Construction is already under way on Empire Resort’s Phase 1 gaming project–Mighty M Gaming at Monticello Raceway, which when completed will feature 1,800 video lottery terminals. The $24-million Mighty M Gaming project is scheduled to be completed by June 30. The Mighty M Gaming facility will include a 350-seat buffet, a 75-seat show lounge and a gaming floor of approximately 86,000 sf.

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