Cumberland casino plan lacks friends Governor threatens to veto businessman's Indian proposal

'Adds some complications'

Federal officials say state approval would be necessary

November 26, 1995|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening says he would veto a Virginia businessman's proposal to put a gambling casino in Cumberland that would be run by an Oklahoma Indian tribe.

"Straight out and with no qualifiers, I am opposed to Indian gaming," Mr. Glendening said in an interview.

"I would not sign off on the recognition of an Indian tribe done strictly for the purpose of bringing gambling to the state of Maryland," he said.

Mr. Glendening's comments would appear to be the death knell for the project, which federal officials say cannot proceed without the governor's approval.

Nonetheless, James L. Silvester of Winchester, Va., says he will press ahead with his efforts.

Mr. Silvester, 43, maintains that he can build a gaming facility on land put into trust for the tribe -- and do it without the governor.

"It definitely adds some complications to the process," Mr. Silvester said of Mr. Glendening's opposition. But he added, "There are other ways to do it. Our Indian attorney in Oklahoma has been working on scenarios."

For more than a year, Mr. Silvester has been touting his idea for an Indian casino as an alternative to proposals by casino companies for commercial gambling at multiple sites across Maryland. A state task force recommended this month that the governor and legislature reject those proposals, too.

But even before Mr. Glendening's comments, the Silvester plan appeared to be in trouble.

He has run into stiff local opposition, including the owners of some adjacent properties atop Wills Mountain in Cumberland, his site of choice.

If that could be overcome, he still would have to negotiate his way through a federal bureaucratic maze that could take years. And the one-time college professor, now a mortgage banker, acknowledges that he has never undertaken a project anywhere near the size of his proposed casino.

Mr. Silvester says he has petitions with signatures of 2,200 Western Maryland residents who favor the plan, but he has found little support among political leaders in Allegany County, where he once headed the Chamber of Commerce.

Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a powerful Democrat from Cumberland, is steadfastly opposed to Mr. Silvester's plan.

"It's clear to me that his prime motivation is to make a personal fortune rather than improve the economy of Western Maryland," Mr. Taylor said. "It is an attempt to use an Indian tribe from Oklahoma as entree to a gambling privilege in Western Maryland that otherwise does not exist.

"Do I question the motivation? Not only do I question it, but I reject the location as being totally inappropriate," Mr. Taylor said.

What Mr. Silvester has been banking on is a provision in federal law that allows Indians to operate gaming businesses on their own land, even if state laws otherwise prohibit such gambling.

After beginning to buy land on Wills Mountain in 1991, he talked to the Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma -- descendants of a tribe that once inhabited Western Maryland. In recent months, Mr. Silvester has been negotiating with the Dallas-based Hollywood Casino Corp. to develop the site.

He acknowledges, however, that no agreement has been signed by him, the tribe and Hollywood. For months, he has been telling reporters that such an agreement is imminent.

If one is signed, Mr. Silvester still will have to go through a &L multistep review by federal agencies in which the economic and environmental benefits and disadvantages for the tribe and the surrounding community are weighed.

The U.S. interior secretary, once petitioned, could give such a plan a green light, but federal officials say Maryland's governor still would have to approve it before a casino could be built.

"The governor must concur in the placing of land in trust for the tribe's benefit, in this case for casino gaming," said Tom Acevedo, special assistant to the chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, an agency of the Interior Department.

The Absentee-Shawnee tribe has yet to take the first step of applying to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for such a casino operation. The plan is not even on an agency list entitled "Land Acquisitions for Gaming Purposes -- Approved, Disapproved, Pending, Rumored."

But if the tribe takes that step, Mr. Silvester said, he thinks Indian gaming could be brought to Western Maryland without the governor's approval.

First, he would have to persuade the federal government to take the Wills Mountain land into trust for the Absentee-Shawnee, considered no simple task. If the land were put in trust, he maintains, he could put any type of gaming there that already is allowed under state law.

Under that scenario, he could build an Indian craft and heritage village atop Wills Mountain and include some types of gaming, such as bingo and tip jars, he said.

But federal officials said land taken into trust for a tribe for economic or farming purposes -- that is, nongaming purposes -- cannot be used for gambling.

"As a general rule, the secretary [of the interior] can take land into trust for tribes without having the approval of the governor -- but not for gaming," Mr. Acevedo said. "All the signals are out; all the red flags are up for this one."

Philip J. Deters, a Maryland assistant attorney general who has researched Indian gambling issues, agreed, saying, "No theme park is going to get you in the back door to casino gaming in Maryland."

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