- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

VERONA, N.Y. — Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter doesn’t play games of chance.So when he staked the future of his tribe on building a successful casino, he never really considered it a gamble.

The Turning Stone Casino Resort is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and it has been an inexhaustible jackpot for the Oneidas, transforming the once poverty-stricken, land-poor tribe into a major economic and political force in central New York.

The Oneidas have used their gambling profits to — among other things — buy back 16,000 acres of ancestral land, open a chain of gas stations and other businesses, start a police force and provide community services, build new housing and a cultural center, and send dozens of young Oneidas to college.

“To some extent, we believed we would be a success, that we would grow and improve. But I can’t tell you that I saw everything we have now,” Mr. Halbritter said.

True to their word 10 years ago, the Oneidas have turned Turning Stone into “a resort destination that has a casino rather than a casino that hopes to be a resort destination,” Mr. Halbritter said.

When they finish their latest expansion next year, the tribe will have invested more than $600 million into the 450-acre resort complex 30 miles east of Syracuse.

What started as a small casino that attracted 450,000 people in its first year today is one of the state’s top tourist attractions with more than 4.2 million visitors a year.

It has four golf courses, 11 restaurants, 14 different types of gaming tables and a variety of accommodations, plus an 800-seat concert venue that has featured Wayne Newton, Liza Minnelli and other big names.

By the end of 2004, the resort will feature two football fields worth of gaming space, three championship golf courses, three luxury hotels, a European spa, a convention center, a cabaret-style showroom and an events arena.

As the casino has grown, so have the tribe’s fortunes.

Where once stood a 32-acre lot of ramshackle trailers, the Oneidas have built modern housing, a cultural center, an elders’ center, a community center and a health center for their 1,000 enrolled members. Besides gas stations, the Oneidas own a Hollywood film production company, a national Indian newspaper, a T-shirt printing plant and a factory that manufactures the cashless electronic gaming machines that fill Turning Stone.

“The future has never looked brighter for us,” Mr. Halbritter said.

While the tribe has unquestionably prospered from the casino, there is mixed sentiment about its impact on the region.

According to the Oneidas, the casino injects about $311 million yearly into the regional economy in combined spending on payroll, goods and services from vendors, and on capital and construction projects.

The vast majority of the nation’s 3,300 employees are not American Indians, who earned nearly $80 million in wages in 2002 and paid about $10.5 million in federal and state payroll taxes.

But the Onedias claim they are sovereign and refuse to pay property taxes, and that angers some local residents.

“There’s no question it has had a negative impact. Property taxes have been going up for years and now we’re getting socked with record hikes,” said Scott Peterman, who heads an organization, Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE), that has opposed the casino since it opened. UCE also has a pending lawsuit challenging the legality of the Oneidas’ gambling compact with the state.

Oneida County Executive Joe Griffo said the casino has boosted tourism and brought much-need jobs to his county, which have offset the loss of property and sales taxes.

Town of Verona Supervisor David Reed, however, believes prosperity is just around the corner for local communities. Ten years ago, Mr. Reed led the opposition, but now he says, “It doesn’t make sense to keep fighting them. The Oneidas are going to grow. We want to make sure our town grows with them.”

The town and tribe recently agreed on a $20 million partnership to improve the water and sewage infrastructure around the casino and Mr. Reed said he already has begun discussions with developers looking to build hotels and restaurants near the casino.

Besides, Turning Stone has begun drawing a different clientele, Mr. Reed and Mr. Halbritter agreed. Initially, visitors came usually for short periods and only to gamble. Now, they just as often come to vacation in the area, which means they are more apt to leave the resort to take in other area attractions.

Gamble, take in a show, or golf

Turning Stone Casino Resort is in Verona, N.Y., 30 miles east of Syracuse, exit 33 off the New York State Thruway. There are 14 different types of table games — including blackjack, craps, poker, roulette, mini-baccarat — played on 104 gaming tables. There are 2,100 cashless instant multigame machines, a 15-table poker room, a high-stakes bingo hall, Keno and pull-tabs.

ACCOMMODATIONS

The Hotel at Turning Stone, a 279-room hotel with Jacuzzi and patio suites; 62-room the Inn at Turning Stone; the Villages at Turning Stone RV Park with 175 sites; and Peaceful Pines, 92-site campground

ENTERTAINMENT

Turning Stone has the 800-seat cabaret-style Showroom at Turning Stone. Past performers include Wayne Newton, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli and Bill Cosby, as well as contemporary rock, rap and country performers. Last year, Pollstar reported it as the 27th busiest club venue (under 5,000 seats) in the world.

GOLF

Shenendoah Golf Club, a par-72 championship course designed by Rick Smith; Sandstone Hollow, a 9-hole par-3 course; Pleasant Knolls, a 9-hole recreational course; and a new 18-hole championship course designed by Robert Trent Jones. Next year, Turning Stone will open a third 18-hole championship course designed by Augusta’s Tom Fazio.

FOOD

The casino presently has 11 different restaurants, a number that will grow to 16 when the current expansion is completed.

CONTACT

Visit www.turning-stone.com or call 800/771-7711 for reservations or 877/833-SHOW for information about scheduled shows.

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