Businessman gambles on Western Md. casino

October 12, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

The Shawnee left Maryland nearly 300 years ago, but with a little gambler's luck they might be back running a multimillion-dollar casino in Western Maryland.

A Virginia businessman is trying to interest a Shawnee tribe in Oklahoma and a high-rolling New York developer in a proposal to build a gambling casino and hotel atop a scenic mountaintop overlooking the city of Cumberland.

James L. Silvester's dream would be accomplished by connecting modern Indian gaming laws with Allegany County's tenuous history as the home of a migratory, 18th-century band of Shawnee Indians.

If successful, the project could become the first casino operation run under Indian gaming laws by a tribe in another state, said Emily Ramirez, acting director for Indian Gaming for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But long before the first roulette wheel begins to spin there, the proposal will be scrutinized by the U.S. secretary of the interior, by Maryland's next governor and incoming General Assembly, by local elected officials and possibly by Western Maryland residents themselves through a voter referendum.

The proposed casino would be built atop Wills Mountain, immediately northwest of Cumberland, a site that commands a breathtaking view of the city and the historic Cumberland Narrows, a pass through the mountains where the country's first National Highway carried settlers heading west. A prominent feature of the site is a 1,000-foot rock cliff known as Lover's

Leap.

Last week, at Mr. Silvester's invitation, three representatives of the Shawnee tribe from Shawnee, Okla., flew east to tour the Cumberland area and dine with Western Maryland officials, including the region's most prominent politician, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat from Allegany County.

Mr. Silvester said he expects to receive a letter of intent from tribal officials later this week expressing their desire to participate in a Cumberland casino project.

He already has received a similar letter from developer and casino owner Donald J. Trump, although Mr. Silvester said he also is in contact with other potential developers.

Mr. Silvester -- who heads BAS/Breckinridge Group and BAS Mortgage, consulting, investment banking and mortgage companies in Winchester, Va. -- owns 15 acres on Will's Mountain and said he speaks for the owners of about 300 acres on or around the mountain.

Both the mountain and a creek that runs through the Cumberland Narrows are named after a Shawnee chief who purportedly lived atop the mountain in the early 1700s, years before Fort Cumberland was built in 1755. Mr. Silvester contends that local historians have been able to trace the 18th-century Shawnees of Allegany County to the tribe in Oklahoma, one of two Shawnee tribes formally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Shawnee project in Cumberland comes about a year after a Maryland confederation of Piscataway Indians began positioning itself to launch a similar casino project in the heart of Southern Maryland. That project is on hold, awaiting submission of documents seeking formal recognition of the tribe by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Cumberland project also surfaces just a week after Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed a 19-member commission to study the competitive forces facing Maryland's horse racing industry -- chief among them the rapid proliferation of legal gambling in Maryland and neighboring states.

In recent months, gambling interests from Nevada to Atlantic City, N.J., have been holding discussions with elected officials and lobbyists in Maryland regarding proposals for casinos, gaming machines and riverboat gambling. In addition, veterans organizations are pushing to have slot machines legalized for all Maryland clubs, just as they are for clubs on the Eastern Shore.

"It is going to come to us anyway," Mr. Silvester said of the expansion of legalized gambling. "Nothing is going to stop it."

The House speaker said he is deeply interested in promoting economic development in Western Maryland, a region where jobs have long been in short supply, but he urged caution.

"I have no position," Mr. Taylor said of the Wills Mountain proposal. "I think this, like all other aspects of gambling, needs thorough deliberation."

He said he was particularly worried about the impact on Maryland's large horse racing and horse breeding industries, although he said he doubted a casino in Cumberland would, by itself, present much competition to the tracks.

For such a project to obtain federal approval, the Indians must own the land and the secretary of interior must conclude that the gaming establishment is in the best interests of the tribe and not detrimental to the surrounding community.

Then, such a proposal requires the concurrence of the governor. Both candidates to be Maryland's next governor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey, have expressed reservations about expanding legalized gambling in Maryland.

Mr. Silvester said he purchased the Wills Mountain property in 1991 with the intent of developing it as a hotel site but concluded that would not be economically viable by itself.

"We thought about the casino idea. Why not do a casino with a Native American twist to it?" he said.

He began conducting research and discovered the connection to the long-departed Shawnee tribe.

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