Gov. Cuomo's casino deal excludes Empire City Casino, bodes well for Catskills

People gamble on gaming machines at the Empire People gamble on gaming machines at the Empire City Casino in Yonkers. (Jan. 25, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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Yonkers officials are fuming over an agreement reached Wednesday that authorizes four more casinos in upstate New York and shuts down possibilities for Rockland and Westchester counties for the next seven years.

The Empire City Casino in Yonkers had bet heavily that it would be able to grow beyond slot machines and develop into a Las Vegas-style casino. The facility, built around the Yonkers Raceway harness racing track, offers patrons more than 5,000 slot machines of various styles, but no Las Vegas-style table games of the sort the new casinos would offer.

"If Yonkers isn't in the mix, it's going to be devastating for the entire region," Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano said recently. "This is one of the top earning casinos in the state, one of the best in the nation. It shouldn't be bypassed for the upstate region."

In recent years, Empire City has spent more than $40 million on upgrades, adding more than 400 new video gaming tables, restaurants, office space and a massive carport in anticipation of additional business from expanded gambling.

Yonkers Racing spent some $410,000 on lobbying related to racing and gambling in 2012, according to a report from the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Empire City spokeswoman Taryn Duffy said the company is reviewing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal, but declined to comment.

MULTIPRONGED AGREEMENT

The agreement allows Las Vegas-style resort casinos near Binghamton, the Hudson Valley-Catskills area and the Albany area. One region -- likely the Catskills, with its tradition of resort development -- may get two casinos.

Additionally, it authorizes two video slot centers of 1,000 machines each on Long Island, though Long Island, like Rockland and Westchester, is prohibited from opening casinos for seven years.

"This legislation is a major step forward in our efforts to both capitalize on this economic development and tourism potential and end the trend of letting neighboring states with legalized gaming take revenue that should be going to our schools," Cuomo said.

When in full operation, the new casinos will provide $1 billion a year to government, Cuomo estimated.

Among the other highlights of the plan:

• New, online gambling games called "cyber sweepstakes cafes" would be outlawed.

• A $500 fee would be imposed on every slot machine and table game at casinos to be used to address gambling addiction.

• The percentage of casino profits shared with government would be comparable with the share now provided by video slot machine centers called racinos at race tracks.

• Communities where casinos are located would share in revenues.

• Most of the state's revenue would be devoted to public schools.

A commission appointed by Cuomo and legislative leaders will pick operators for the casinos on a competitive basis. High marks will be given to proposals with the largest share of profits returned to government and with established integrity of the casino developers based on their previous record of projects.

OPPOSITION EXPECTED

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The deal isn't a certainty: Voters will have the final say this fall when they decide a referendum allowing up to seven non-Indian casinos statewide over several years. A Siena College poll shows New Yorkers are divided on the issue, including in New York City where the state's largest turnout is expected because of the contentious mayoral race.

"We feel there should be no amendment at all to legalize casinos in New York State because the social costs to the people of New York that go with adding the casinos will be much bigger than any payments to the state and to any so-called funding of education," said Dr. Stephen Shafer of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York.

He said the bill's provision for funding to help problem gamblers could end up being five times more than is currently spent by the state, "but it's still not enough.

"The problem with helping problem gamblers is that most of them don't go for help until they have ruined their lives and the lives of people around them," Shafer said.

CATSKILLS REVIVAL?

Upper Hudson Valley lawmakers, however, hope voters will OK the plan and see the possibility of two casinos as an economic boon to the area's once-thriving resort industry.

"It seems like the stars are lining up in the right place," said Assemb. Aileen Gunther (D-Forestburgh), who would like to see two casinos in Sullivan County, her home turf. "We're really excited about our prospects."

Gunther said two sites -- the old Concord Hotel site in Kiamesha Lake, which is proposed by EPR and Empire Resorts, and one in Liberty, being pitched by Foxwoods and Muss Development at the old Grossinger's Hotel -- are being considered as potential locations for new casinos.

The region was once a destination for vacationers from New York City who flocked to camps and resorts in the summer.

"The economic spinoff would be tremendous for this area," Gunther said. "We're hoping to bring the heydays back."

Sen. John Bonacic (R-Mount Hope), who represents parts of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster counties, agrees.

"I personally think the Catskills has the possibility to land two of them," he said. "I believe the Catskills can and will successfully compete against any other part of the state and nation for gaming and entertainment dollars."

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