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Bonnie Castle racino project hangs in limbo as state deliberates on commercial gambling

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ALEXANDRIA BAY — A proposed $100 million project that would include a racino, hotel, convention center and outlet mall at the Bonnie Castle Recreation Center hangs in limbo while developers wait for New York state to issue a request for application for the state’s eighth harness license.

Before that can happen, however, the New York State Gaming Commission first will have to site four commercial casinos in upstate New York, thanks to a ballot measure passed last fall.

Then, and only then, will the state take up the matter, according to Lee Park, director of communications for the Gaming Commission.

“We do not expect to address the state’s eighth harness license until the commercial casino siting process is complete. When and if the Commission takes up the eighth harness license issue, it will be handled via a procurement/RFA process,” Mr. Park said in an email.

The RFA, or “request for application,” is a process by which the state solicits proposals for projects.

The proposed project, “River Isles,” was developed by Mark F. Bohn of Bennett Heights Capital LLC and Marc R. Vasile, vice president of Vasile Construction Corp., both seasonal residents of the Thousand Islands. According to plans, the site will include both a horse racing venue and gambling in the form of video lottery terminals, or VLTs. Both activities require special licenses from the state, but a VLT license cannot be obtained without a racing license.

The immediate project would include a 35,000-square-foot racino with 1,000 video lottery terminals, a 128-room state-of-the-art hotel and a 500-seat convention center along with both fine and casual dining restaurants. Expansions of the 600-acre site near Interstate 81 would include an outlet mall and other commercial space, a spa and an all-terrain and recreational vehicle park.

According to promotional materials released by the developers, the construction phase of the project will employ an estimated 500 skilled trade workers and construction professionals, while the resort itself will hire and train more than 500 hospitality, entertainment and gaming professionals.

Mr. Bohn said he was optimistic the project ultimately would be approved once the state issues the RFA. He said that the project he and his business partner have developed is the most competitive project in the most ideal location in the state.

But the River Isles racino and resort may be opposed by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which operates the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino in Hogansburg. The River Isles site would fall within the exclusivity zone established around the Mohawk Casino by an agreement between the tribe and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last year.

The tribe released a statement earlier in the week and reiterated its position Thursday.

“The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe monitors developments in gaming within the state, particularly within our zone of exclusivity,” Publications Manager Aimee Benedict wrote in an email. “The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe would oppose any development that may jeopardize our established gaming operations. As for development in Jefferson or St. Lawrence Counties, we would of course be concerned with substantiated discussion of development however, to our knowledge these proposals do not yet have political support.”

According to emails exchanged between Mr. Bohn’s legal counsel and the state Gaming Commission, a commercial casino would not be able to operate at the Bonnie Castle site because of the exclusivity agreement, but a harness track with VLTs would not be subject to the same restrictions.

According to Mr. Park, the Gaming Commission spokesman, the state’s agreement with the St. Regis Mohawk tribe does not prohibit the siting of a harness track or video lottery facility within the region.

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