State legislative field hearings were held last week examining whether or not the State will begin the historic process of seeking to amend the New York State Constitution to allow commercialized gambling throughout the State. Supporters of bringing the gambling industry into the Empire State have already started pushing the message that allowing such a dramatic transformation will be the solution to New York’s economic problems. There is a reason, however, why such a bold change cannot happen merely by passing a law. This is one of the extraordinary instances when the Constitution must be amended by two terms of the legislature, followed by a statewide referendum approved by the voters, something which is rarely done.
Undoubtedly, supporters of this effort will point to Indian nations, such as the Oneida Nation, as proof of the positive impact gaming can have on New York’s communities. The problem with that argument, however, is that Indian nations are fundamentally different from the gambling industry. Unlike them, we are governments that are obligated to invest our revenues and resources into our ancestral lands and surrounding communities right here in New York. This is the real story of the Oneida Indian Nation and its success.
Take a look at Central New York. The region was once one of the primary manufacturing centers of this country until the shareholders and board members of countless companies closed up and moved to places like Mexico and China in search of higher profits.
At the same time that these companies were relocating outside of New York, the Oneida people were investing back into the community, and in the process the Oneida Indian Nation emerged as one of the most positive economic forces in Central New York. In 2010, the Oneida Indian Nation was the largest employer in Oneida and Madison counties and the third largest employer in the sixteen counties that make up Central New York, only behind Cornell University and the State University Health System.
The Oneida Indian Nation now employs nearly 5,000 employees right here in Central New York. Turning Stone, our destination resort, brings more than four and half million visitors a year into our community, and over 1,000 business meetings and wedding receptions. We have a payroll exceeding $125 million per year that is invested directly into our local economy. Last year alone, we spent more than $285 million for goods and services, the majority of that money going to support local businesses here in our home community.
Moreover, unlike the gambling industry, we invest in many other businesses right here at home, too. Our other operations, which also employ our neighbors, include the SavOn chain of convenience stores, RV Park, three marinas, Indian Country Today Media Network, Four Directions Productions, a fishing lodge, and a car care center. The Oneida people are from here, and we are staying here: Nobody fears that we will pick up and move someplace else, leaving the community to clean up behind us.
Our commitment is possible because, unlike the gambling companies that siphon profits to their far-flung shareholders, Indian nations have a commitment and loyalty to our land, our people and our communities. For example, as the population in our region has declined, we’ve continued to invest in expanding our scope of services to ensure Central New York remains a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. We are making long-term investments in this state because we will never leave. In this time of economic insecurity, you will never read a headline in any newspaper that says: “Oneida Indian Nation to Outsource Jobs to Another State,” or “Oneida Indian Nation to Relocate its Headquarters Overseas.”
New Yorkers are wise to look no further than Atlantic City to remember what happens to cities that pin their hopes on the commercial gambling industry as the solution to all of their economic problems. The Atlantic City community has been victimized for decades by the gambling industry that has depleted revenues from the city, leaving it crime ridden, blighted and with an uncertain future. The gambling industry is not obligated to care about the long-term future of the communities where they may locate—their operational concern is to exploit opportunities that promise the greatest immediate returns, wherever they find them.
A drive through Carrier Circle in Syracuse these days provides an important history lesson. New York is reeling from the legacy of pain left behind by companies looking to maximize only their own short-term profits. Elected officials should not continue the same pattern by re-winding the clock in support a scheme to Atlantic City-ize our region. Noted poet and philosopher George Santayana was prescient when he remarked, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Lawmakers should invest the time to understand the history and crucial differences between commercial gambling interests that drain a community’s resources and Indian governments that build those resources for the long term.
Ray Halbritter is Oneida Nation Representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, including Turning Stone Resort Casino. This column previously appeared in the Albany Times Union.