AKWESASNE, NY-Enter a new front-runner in the race to build the first Native American casino in Sullivan County–the St. Regis Mohawks. On Wednesday, three Mohawk Councils approved terms of a proposed land settlement agreement with New York State. If ratified, the deal would end a 22-year old land claim dispute between the state and the Mohawk Tribes.

The accord would also be a significant milestone for the St. Regis Mohawk’s proposal to build a $500-million gaming facility at the Kutsher’s Country Club property in the Town of Thompson. A land settlement agreement is required if the project hopes to receive required approvals from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and from New York State.

Mohawk Tribal leaders said that the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs and New York State agreed to terms that could settle the land claim dispute. The proposed settlement must now go before a tribal referendum scheduled for Nov. 27.

“The unity of the three councils in pursuing this claim has played a central role in getting us to where we are today,” says Jack Swamp, Wolf Clan representative of the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs. “Our elders have taught us the value of working together for the good of the community.”

The proposed settlement could finally pave the way to the project breaking ground sometime soon. In 2000, after the federal government had approved a casino project to be built at Monticello Raceway and New York State was ready to okay the venture, the St. Regis Mohawks shelved the project. The tribe decided to switch developers and opted to pursue a plan at the Kutsher’s property with Park Place Entertainment, now Caesars Entertainment.

In May 2003, the tribe reached a Memorandum of Understanding with New York State on a proposed land claim settlement agreement only to have the deal fall apart when a new tribal council, which had opposed the proposed agreement, came into power. Most recently, Gov. George Pataki’s administration was stung once again when a proposed Memorandum of Understanding between the state and the Cayuga Nation of New York also failed to produce a final agreement. The Cayuga Nation is pursuing a $600-million casino project in partnership with Empire Resorts on property adjacent to Monticello Raceway. However, talks between the state and the Cayuga Nation have broken off.

Prior settlement deals with Indian Tribes had been announced by Pataki’s office. This time Pataki let the Mohawks announce the agreement on land claim terms.A spokesman for Pataki says, “Any settlement terms will not be finalized until after the Mohawks hold a referendum and that referendum is approved by the Mohawk community members. At that point, a formal settlement agreement would still need to be executed by each of the parties. However, we are very encouraged by the good faith efforts being made by all sides to resolve this long-standing, historic dispute.”

A spokesman for Caesars said of the deal between the Mohawks and New York State, “We think today’s announcement of the proposed land claim settlement represents a significant step forward for the Mohawk Mountain Casino Resort. This project is going to create thousands of jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars into the Sullivan County economy.”

The Mohawk Mountain Casino Resort calls for the construction of 165,000 sf of gaming space, a 750-room hotel as well as restaurants, spas and retail space. Representatives of Caesars and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe say they hope to begin construction on the casino project “as soon as possible.” However, neither party would offer any details on when they hope to break ground on the venture.

Some of the highlights of the proposed land claim settlement deal which pertains to property in Northern New York State include: the state paying the Mohawks $30 million over the first five years of the deal and $70 million over the next 35 years; a total of 14,778 acres to be returned to the Akwesasne Mohawks; and New York State establishing a $10-million community development fund to assist local governments in Saint Lawrence and Franklin counties in dealing with the fiscal impacts of the settlement.

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