Casino dreams: After decades, Catskills casinos are a step closer to reality after vote

MONTICELLO, N.Y. – After decades of waiting, Catskills residents who believe casinos can revive long-gone tourist traffic think they may finally hit the jackpot.

“It will bring a lot of jobs — bring the town, county and region back to what we were at one time,” said town of Thompson supervisor Anthony Cellini, who has been trying to land a local casino for almost 40 years. “We were the hospitality capital of the Northeast, and we’d like to be that way again.”

Generations ago, hotels and bungalow camps in the lake-laden area were packed each summer with tourists — many of them Jewish families from the New York City area. But the crowds thinned out by the ’70s. Promises of landing a casino have been like a three-card monte game played out for decades. The money card never came up until Tuesday, when voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that authorizes seven Las Vegas-style casinos. Two will be in the Catskill-Hudson Valley region, where some potential sites include old Borscht Belt hotels.

The development can’t come soon enough for some of the shopworn towns in this upstate area. In Monticello, Brian Fleischman stood on a faded stretch of Broadway while on break from his job at the Monticello Bagel Bakery. He hopes casinos can revive the area.

“We’ve been hearing it for 40 years already and nothing happened,” he said. “And now finally it’s getting approved and I think it’s a great thing.”

Many of the plans unveiled so far would be on the sites of some of the grand old Borscht Belt hotels. Scott Butera, president and CEO of Foxwoods Resort and Casino, said Tuesday he and his partners at the Muss Organization will seek a license in Liberty at the site of the old Grossinger’s hotel, 90 miles northwest of New York City.

“It’s a nice, easy drive from the city,” Butera said.

In nearby Thompson, which includes Monticello, Cellini said there are three shovel-ready casino proposals in his town. Two of them would be at the site of the old Concord hotel. Empire Resorts, which operates video slots at the Monticello harness track, is proposing a $600 million casino resort on the site of the old Concord Hotel with EPR Properties.

On Wednesday afternoon, Cuomo spoke to a highly appreciative crowd of supporters at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the Catskills music venue built on the original site of the 1969 Woodstock concert. The governor said passage of the casino referendum “fundamentally changed the trajectory of the Catskills.”

“We finally have a magnet for attracting tourists from downstate, from New York City,” he said.

The ballot proposition passed with 76 per cent of the vote in Sullivan County and 60 per cent in Ulster County, according to unofficial results. The results were split in two other counties with potential sites, with 54 per cent in Saratoga County voting no and 69 per cent in favour in Tioga County.

In Monticello, Gary Sommers said the amendment was a good thing for the area. But he said now it’s important to make sure the coming casinos are not self-enclosed entities that keep customers — and their money — inside the resorts.

“I don’t want to see Monticello turn into something like the back streets of Atlantic City,” Sommers said.