VERONA, N.Y. -- It's an incongruous sight, but the 19-story tower rising from the farmland along the New York State Thruway is just a hint of the changes happening at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in central New York. When it's completed, Turning Stone's new Tower Hotel will be the tallest building in the 140 miles between Albany and Syracuse and a highlight of the Oneida Indian Nation's $308 million Verona expansion.
Ten years ago, there was little to do in this rural area besides riding the clackety old roller coaster in the small amusement park at Sylvan Beach on the eastern tip of Oneida Lake. These days, Turning Stone hosts the likes of Bill Cosby and Jewel in its 800-seat Showroom theater, which was ranked the 27th busiest club venue in the world in 2002 by Pollstar magazine. Not bad for a former cornfield.
Sitting between Utica and Syracuse, Turning Stone Resort is about 4 hours directly west of Boston. It is the largest of the three casinos in New York (one is in the Buffalo area, and another is farther north near Watertown), and one of the top five tourist destinations in the state, attracting more than 4 million visitors each year. Inside, the casino is much like other casinos: loud and somewhat smoky. (Although New York outlawed smoking in public areas last year, the casino is part of a sovereign nation where smoking is still allowed.) No alcoholic drinks are served in the casino, restaurants, or showrooms, though you may discreetly bring your own for meals or shows, and the owners recently applied for licenses. The gaming area has poker (and is a satellite for the World Poker Tournament), bingo, table games (blackjack, roulette, and more), and a cashless version of slot machines (instant multi-games). It also has large rooms for high stakes bingo.
Even with more than 120,000 square feet of gaming space, it is not gambling the Oneida Nation is counting on for its growth.
''One of the Oneidas' fundamental beliefs is that we must make a path for the future seven generations. Gaming has provided us with the opportunity to build that path," said Brian Patterson, Bear Clan representative (who would historically have been called a chief) for the Nation. ''Our goal is to diversify and become the premier destination and golf resort in the Northeast."
In fact, when the dust settles later this year, the casino will represent only 7 percent of the total square footage of the resort. In addition to the 287-room Tower Hotel, the resort is adding a 98-suite luxury hotel; a large event center with a capacity of approximately 5,000 for concerts; Winter Garden atrium with new restaurants, shops, and gaming areas; and a luxury spa set to open late this year. The luxury hotel, The Lodge, resembles a traditional Adirondack lodge from the outside, with corner suites with private balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, fireplaces, and large plasma televisions.
However, Turning Stone is betting that the real draw is golf. When the Tom Fazio-designed championship Atunyote (Oneida for ''eagle") course opens in July, the resort will have three public championship-level courses, including the Shenendoah Golf Club designed by Rick Smith. Shenendoah (Oneida for ''running deer") is one of about 20 courses in the United States that have been recognized by Audubon International for their efforts toward environmental protection and preservation, and it was ranked the best-conditioned public golf course in the country by Golf Digest magazine last year. Kaluhyat (''the other side of the sky") is a course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. that opened last year and was voted one of the 10 best new courses in 2003 by Golf magazine. In addition, the resort has a nine-hole par-3course designed by Smith, a nine-hole recreational course, a golf academy, and practice and driving ranges.
The Oneidas' investment and focus on golf isn't all that surprising considering their long history of outdoor sports. In fact, the Oneidas (and other members of the Iroquois Confederation) played the forerunner to today's lacrosse, which they called ''Ga-lahs."
The Iroquois were a confederation of Indian tribes stretching across New York State, and included the Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. Presciently, the Oneidas were the only ones to side with the colonists during the Revolutionary War, earning them praise from George Washington and his signature on the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794, which promised to honor the Indian nation and its lands. However, subsequent treaties imposed by the state reduced the Oneidas' land holdings, until they filed suit in federal court for recognition of the 1794 treaty. In 1983, the US Supreme Court upheld the validity of the treaty and the Oneidas started to buy back their ancestral homelands.
This accelerated with the 1993 opening of Turning Stone Casino, named to signify a new and revitalized day for the tribe. (The Oneida name means ''people of the standing stone.") Today, visitors can stop by the Shako:wi Cultural Center to see its collection of artifacts and artwork, including traditional clothing and a sample of treaty cloth, or bolts of muslin cloth, that are given to the Nation each year by the federal government as part of the Treaty of Canandaigua.
Central New York has a laid-back charm and uncrowded feel that makes it a nice choice for a weekend jaunt. It also makes a great base camp for other expeditions: Cooperstown with the Baseball Hall of Fame is an hour east; the picturesque Finger Lakes and their wineries are an hour southwest. Just east in Utica is the Matt Brewing Co., creator of the Saranac beers.
A number of Revolutionary War sites also are nearby, including Fort Stanwix in Rome, which guarded a centuries-old Iroquois Confederacy portage that bridged the waterways between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.
During the war, British forces attacked the fort but were held off while local militia and the Oneidas tried to assist. They were cut off at the Battle of Oriskany (another historic site nearby), considered one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The combined effect was to push British General Barry St. Leger north, keeping him from marching on to New York City.
While the resort has brought jobs and activity to former farmland, one of the biggest impacts has been on the 1,000 members of the Oneida Nation itself.
''We're the seventh generation from the treaty that secured our rights," said Patterson. ''We've worked hard to build a sound economic foundation for our nation and reclaim our heritage by performing our ceremonies and instituting language programs.
''It's a new day for us."
David A. Kelly is a freelance writer in Newton.