Should the Islandia Marriott Long Island Hotel, on the LIE’s north service road, be permitted a betting parlor? This would be a Suffolk County OTB “mini-casino.” If a Buffalo based developer has his way, he would buy the entire hotel, and lease space to OTB to operate a racing simulcast facility along with 1,000 video lottery terminals. This latest legalized gambling project for Long Island is worth our discussion, and gives good reason to look at the big, changing, gambling picture here and nationwide.
The Islandia Village Board held public hearings for this mini-casino project. Things did not go well. Citizens largely opposed it, concerned about a rise in crime and traffic, and a negative impact on property values. So the board scheduled for last Tuesday its vote for a special permit for the hotel’s mini-casino. But this pending vote put the village board members on edge. Then, with the vote a mere 24 hours away, these politicians got creative – they canceled the vote altogether. They gave no reasons, but clearly they relished the comfort of putting things off. One civic leader did say the mayor told him that they needed more time to look into things.
What overall has become of legalized gambling of late? In New York alone, how much of government life has it become? Will the big money that drives it bring it to the East End, maybe even to EPCAL at Calverton? Can local politicians resist the allure of its almost magical revenue? Does what’s best for working people and families matter at all?
A new book entitled, From Steel to Slots – Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City by Chloe E. Taft is a good place to start. Her enlightening history about gambling also describes the impact of a casino in a working family town, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
In little more than half a century, the United States has become a gambling nation. In the early 60s, Nevada was the only state on the map allowing casino gambling. None had lotteries. From then till now, however, what a change! Today, 28 states host casinos owned by American Indian tribes. Nineteen states boast of commercial casinos (i.e. run by private companies). Fourteen states permit racetracks offering casino gambling at “racinos.” Lotteries as we know them here in New York, are the pride of 44 state governments as well as Washington D.C. Utah and Hawaii are the only two left of those 49 in the early ’60s where both lotteries and casinos remain illegal. And how the legalized gambling states crave that revenue for enlarging government operations without raising taxes! But they raise taxes anyway – gambling just helps feed the growing government gorilla.
Just as government’s addiction to growth feeds increasingly on government-sponsored gambling, there grows as well an addiction to gambling among ordinary, hard-working folk. In a cruel irony, cash-hungry states feed on the uncontrollable urge of many people to keep on gambling despite the toll it takes on their lives. The American Gambling Association reports there are now more than 6 million adult compulsive gambling Americans addicted to gambling. And a study out of UCLA-San Diego found that both visitors and residents of gaming communities experience “significantly higher levels of suicide.” This study is one of several showing that Las Vegas “displays the highest levels of suicide in the nation.” Needless to say, Nevada has the highest level of addicted gamblers in the US.
The spreading ink blot of legalized gambling had all to do with one state permitting it so as not to lose gambling bucks to another where it had already been permitted – a sort of peer pressure among state governments. State by state, lotteries and casinos have almost imperceptibly become a normal feature of American life, right under the nose of the federal government and even the national news media.
As From Steel to Slots would tell it, the Bethlehem experience is quite instructive. As in New York and New Jersey, the Pennsylvania state legislature designated places where a casino would be permitted, and Bethlehem is one of them. In an effort to fill a void left by that city’s defunct steel industry, Bethlehem’s commercial casino draws all the gamblers it can from New York and New Jersey by the busload. The lingering fear in Bethlehem, however, is that all the jobs, revenues for governments, charitable donations and prosperity will prove temporary just as it did in Atlantic City, where the winning promise of gambling hit the money, only to be followed by bankrupt casinos lining the boardwalk. Pennsylvania has done well so far, but how reliable is their transition from manufacturing steel to manufacturing entertainment?
Lotteries are far different, employ few and build nothing. Yet lotteries put government in the proverbial catbird’s seat, raking in revenue from a form of gambling that they permit, then sponsor, then profit from.
Our own New York sponsors lotteries, and permits charitable and “pari-mutual” gambling as well as racetrack betting and parlors. It does not permit commercial casinos, but does allow American Indian casinos, whose revenues are dedicated to tribal purposes (with fat shares for greedy state and local governments.)
Long Island’s own Shinnecock Nation strives to lay claim to what had been its own lands on the East End. Their tenacity in court already gained them crucial tribal recognition, and if they hold out, who knows where their claim may go to enlarge their nation’s territory by many square miles on the South Fork. Any odds?
Shinnecock tribal leaders publicly state their aim with land reclamation is to gain “leverage” in locating a site for a casino, including one clearly attractive site, EPCAL at Calverton. EPCAL as a gambling center continues to be the subject of discussion among developers, real estate brokers, bankers and politicians. The Shinnecocks hear many a whispered word of encouragement from vested interests in New York City and Albany, and from as far away as the West Coast. The Shinnecocks are a far more sophisticated group than some want to admit, and they enjoy the advantage of being underestimated. Other Long Island tribes are moving in the same direction.
Suffice it to say that a tribal casino for Long Island is not as far-fetched an idea as it may have seemed, irrespective of where it is located. The intrigue continues. If, or when, it gains momentum, it will make the current mini-casino saga in Islandia look like small potatoes. The broader, long-term question persists: with casino gambling and all the “prosperity” it supposedly offers: Will Long Island’s own “Lady Luck” hang in, or run out?
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.