Luxury retail outlet, entertainment complex in offing for resort

Published Nov 19, 2014 at 4:00pm

VERONA — A freestanding shopping center with some 60 stores is the next expansion at the Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Resort Casino.

The focus of the complex to be constructed on the south side of the casino’s main entrance behind the events center off Route 365 will be luxury outlet stores. No names of tenants have been disclosed. No big box stores like a Wal-Mart or Target are planned.

Details of the plan were laid out by Oneida Nation Representative and Nation Enterprises CEO Ray Halbritter this morning at Turning Stone’s Exit 33 club complex, which is the latest major addition to what has become a sprawling entertainment destination over the last two decades. 

The project was billed as “The Next Big Thing” in invitations sent out Monday to today’s news conference. Standing with Halbritter were County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr. and Central New York Labor Council President Pat Costello.

The 250,000-square-foot enclosed venue also will add new upscale restaurants and a six-screen movie theater, and a highend bowling alley to the resort. The nation estimates the addition will result in another 5 million visits a year after it opens in the fall of 2016, roughly doubling the number Turning Stone receives now.

Ground will be broken this spring on the complex, which will be developed, leased and operated by Connecticut-based Gordon Group Holdings.

The shopping center is projected to create 1,100 jobs, according to the Oneida Nation. The tribe is the largest employer in the region with about 4,500 employees.

“We’re excited to bring the first luxury retail outlet to central New York, offering local guests and tourists from around the country a comprehensive shopping and entertainment experience,” said Oneida Nation Representative and Nation Enterprises CEO Ray Halbritter. “The building of this luxury outlet and entertainment venue will create more than 1,100 new jobs, bring millions of new people to central New York, and generate tens of millions of dollars for the surrounding counties.”

Large-scale projects are nothing new for the Oneidas as they continue to diversify to decrease reliance on gaming revenue while at the same time expanding Turning Stone’s appeal. Indian casinos around the country are increasingly adding shopping centers.

The addition of a substantial retail component at Turning Stone comes as New York state is about to issue licenses for non-Indian casinos for the first time ever.

New York voters approved four upstate casinos last November. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promoted the casinos as an economic development tool for upstate communities that are suffering financially. The state board reviewing casino pitches is expected to make its decisions later this month, with 16 proposals vying for licenses to be split among three areas: the Capital Region, the Finger Lakes-Southern Tier and the Catskills-Hudson Valley.

Turning Stone’s partner in developing the “The Next Big Thing” is the Gordon Group. The firm cemented its global reputation by creating The Forum Shops at Caeser’s Palace in Las Vegas.

“We’ve had the good fortune to work with many of the world’s most renowned resort gaming destinations and are thrilled to be entering into a partnership with Turning Stone to create something revolutionary,” said Sheldon Gordon, chairman of Gordon Group Holdings. “Through our research, we’ve learned the overall market for this area is ‘under-retailed’ and a significant amount of local retail dollars are being spent outside of central New York.”

Today’s Turning Stone announcement is bound to raise anew complaints among people who assert that the nation’s businesses enjoy an uneven playing field, siphoning customers away from non-Indian businesses. The Oneidas do not pay real estate taxes on their land or collect state and county sales tax at their businesses. The tribe does charge its own sales tax and keeps the money for tribal government purposes.

County Legislator Chad Davis, D-14, Clinton, has said several times even large malls like Sangertown Square in New Hartford could be squeezed financially if the tribe opened its own major shopping center. He says stores may locate in an Indian-owned location because it the cost of doing business will be lower.

As part of a settlement reached last year between the state, tribe, and Oneida and Madison counties to address long-time divisive tax and land issues, the nation agreed to share 25 percent of its slot machine revenue with the state.This is the first time the tribe has shared any Turning Stone revenue with the state. New York, in turn, splits the this casino money with the two counties. No other payments to the state or local governments are required by the settlement.

The settlement is being contested in court by the towns of Vernon and Verona.

Following enactment of the settlement,13,004 acres of nation-owned land in the two counties, including Turning Stone, was placed in trust by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of the Oneidas. Trust status removes the land from property taxes and state and local regulatory controls such as land use controls

Challenges to the federal trust land approval are still in the courts.

The Oneidas have about 1,000 enrolled members, about half of whom live in Central New York.

What started out as a small casino has grown in many directions since its 1993 debut. Besides gaming, Turning Stone offers golf, live entertainment, accommodations and restaurants, and spa facilities. It has earned AAA Four Diamond ratings for The Lodge, The Tower Hotel, and Wildflowers restaurant. It attracts more than 4.5 million visitors a year.

Most recently, Exit 33, the entertainment complex featuring three clubs, was opened, at a reported cost of $25 million, in conjunction with Turning Stone’s 20th anniversary last year.

Many years ago there was an outlet shopping center inside the old Charlestown complex on the Utica-Herkimer County border.