No liquor license? No problem for Turning Stone
by Glenn Coin / The Post-Standard
Sunday September 06, 2009, 10:37 AM
For a place that can't get a liquor license, Turning Stone Resort and Casino serves a lot of booze.
Since the state Liquor Authority denied liquor licenses at the resort in late 2007, Turning Stone has found a way to offer drinks to up to 400,000 customers.
Starting Monday, the resort will expand those numbers by about 90,000 per year by letting hotel guests and casual visitors belly up to the bar or have a glass of wine with dinner at restaurants and lounges.
Without a liquor license, Turning Stone has struck a deal with a private caterer -- Beeches Restaurant, of Rome -- to provide alcohol at weddings, conventions, and the resort's own private membership club and nightclub. Since January 2008, Beeches has obtained permits from the liquor authority to serve alcohol at more than 1,600 events at venues at Turning Stone.
The state and the Oneida Indian Nation, which owns Turning Stone, say it's perfectly legal.
"Alcohol is going to be served here under a regulatory scheme that the state of New York has found fit to apply elsewhere," said Turning Stone's general manager, Peter Carmen.
Assemblyman David Townsend, whose district includes Turning Stone, disagrees. Last week he wrote letters to the governor and the liquor authority chairman to protest the permits.
"They're using the permit system to circumvent the law," Townsend said.
In his letter to authority Chairman Dennis Rosen, Townsend called for a halt to Beeches' permits at Turning Stone until the authority does a complete review.
Authority spokesman Bill Crowley said the permits are issued according to the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control law.
"The ABC law authorizes the agency to issue catering permits for 'use at a particular function, occasion or event in a hotel, restaurant, club, ballroom or other premises,' " Crowley wrote in an e-mail. "When we receive permit applications that are approvable, they are approved."
The authority has for years approved permits for Beeches and several other caterers to serve alcohol at Turning Stone. Under state law, a restaurant like Beeches that has a liquor license can serve alcohol and food at an event away from the restaurant through special, one-time caterer permits. The event must be at specific place for a specific time period and limited to a certain group of people, rather than open to the general public.
When catering started at the casino several years ago, drinks were served only to guests at specific functions, such as weddings. After the liquor authority shot down the Oneida nation's liquor license applications in late 2007, however, the resort ramped up and expanded its use of catering permits to include standing alcohol service.
Because a caterer's permit limits alcohol service to a private group, Turning Stone devised a plan to turn the Lava nightclub into a private club. For a one-time, $25 membership -- about the price of a cover charge -- anyone who walks through the door at Lava can become a lifetime member. Beeches serves alcohol every Friday and Saturday night to up to 950 people per night.
The private-club plan opened access to alcohol to far more people. From January to July 2008, Beeches catered nearly 400 events to serve alcohol to up to 93,000 people. During the same period this year, those numbers rose to 571 events and 167,000 potential drinkers.
Catered events have been as small as a 10-person private box at the REO Speedwagon concert in July to the 3,000-person golf exhibition last month featuring Tiger Woods.
Come Monday, the nation will further expand the notion of a private club at Turning Stone.
Every hotel guest, most people who attend concerts or get spa treatments, golfers at the resort's premier courses, and anyone who opts to pay a $25 fee will become lifetime members of the Diamond Explorer Club. That membership will entitle them to buy drinks at the resort's five fine-dining restaurants and three lounges.
Turning Stone is at a competitive disadvantage with other resorts that serve alcohol, Carmen said.
"This is Turning Stone's way of trying to improve the situation in a way that is respectful of what this community and the state Liquor Authority feel comfortable with," he said.
The liquor authority has approved the latest expansion of alcohol service, granting the Beeches 75 permits in August to serve alcohol at the restaurants and lounges. Carmen said those were only tests, however; no alcohol has been served in any of those venues and won't be until Monday.
Even after the expansion of alcohol at Turning Stone, no drinks will be served on the gaming floor. According to Liquor Authority regulations, alcohol can't be served where "Bingo or other game of chance" is played.
Beeches is co-owned by Chris Destito, the husband of Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito.
Nation officials and Chris Destito say the Beeches contracts at Turning Stone have nothing to do with politics.
"We do our job extremely well," Chris Destito said. "It's a very large operation at the casino, and it's not something you can just give somebody who doesn't know what they're doing."
Under the terms of the permits, caterers must provide food as well as alcohol, and not just chips and pretzels. Beeches contracts with Turning Stone for the food, Destito said, eliminating the need for Beeches to bring food in and out.
The permits also require that all alcohol be removed from the premises after the permit time expires, Destito said.
"Every single day, we bring everything in and everything out," he said.
Beeches must obtain permits for each bar and each day at Turning Stone. In August, Beeches obtained 246 permits for 174 events. The restaurant paid the standard $48 fee for each permit, for a total of $11,808.
The caterer permits are issued to Beeches, so the Liquor Authority has the authority to conduct inspections to make sure alcohol isn't being served to minors.
As a sovereign Indian tribe, the Oneida nation is exempt from following most state laws.
Alcohol permits are a separate matter, however, largely because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that states have control over the way alcohol is served and distributed on Indian lands.
EDITORIAL FOOTNOTE: New York State not granting a liquor license to Turning Stone, doesn't seem fair to me. If a patron goes to other casinos and slot parlors at race tracks in New York can they drink? Why shouldn't people who go to casinos not be allowed to drink? Would you want to join a club to drink? Why did the state do this? Is it fair? Could it have anything to do with it's a Native American casino? What do you think?
THESE ARE THE OPINIONS OF BROKENWING.