Upstate casinos proposal riles Westchester leaders

Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway is located Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway is located at 810 Yonkers Ave. in Yonkers. (April 3, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

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Westchester County pols are chafing over Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan to create new casinos upstate and give them a five-year head start on any new downstate competitors -- a plan that denies a piece of the action to the multimillion-dollar Empire City Casino in Yonkers.

State lawmakers last year voted to create up to seven new non-Indian-run casinos. Because the measure requires an amendment to the state constitution, it must be approved again this year, and must pass a statewide referendum before any casino can go forward.

Last week, Cuomo said he wants to put the question to voters in the November elections. If the amendment is approved, Cuomo said, he would seek to authorize three new upstate casinos, allowing them five years to establish themselves before facing competition from new casinos downstate.

That doesn't sit well with Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, who argues that Empire City needs to be part of the equation. The Empire City facility now 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," Spano told Newsday on Wednesday. "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."

Assemb. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers) called the governor's proposed five-year moratorium "very troubling" and predicts a fight between upstate and downstate lawmakers over where the casinos will be located, if voters legalize gambling.

"Empire City is an extremely successful model of a well-run casino and should be given an opportunity," Mayer said.

Cuomo has designated six upstate regions that could compete for the new casinos. While Orange and Sullivan counties are included in one region, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties are not included. In explaining his strategy, Cuomo was emphatic about the need to bring economic stimulus to upstate New York.

"Upstate New York has been struggling for multiple generations," Cuomo said. "Western New York has been declining for decades and decades. We need to do something to help upstate New York. It has to be dramatic."

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said she is still reviewing the governor's proposal,but is "extremely concerned" that Yonkers appears to have been bypassed. She said lawmakers should play a role in deciding where casinos are built. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino also has expressed concerns about the future of Empire City.

As it stands, Cuomo's plan calls for the creation of a new gambling commission that would issue casino licenses.

Empire City Casino is built around the Yonkers Raceway harness racing track, a facility that is more than 100 years old. Yonkers Racing, owner of both the track and Empire City, has bet heavily that it will be able to grow beyond slot machines and develop into a Las Vegas-style casino. In recent years, the company has spent more than $40 million on renovations, adding 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.

Taryn Duffy, a spokesperson for the company, declined to comment on Cuomo's proposal, but pointed out that Empire City is one of New York's most successful gaming operations, generating more than $1.6 billion a year for schools and local governments, notably for Yonkers.

In 2012, Empire City pumped $23 million a month into New York schools, Duffy said.

New York has five Indian-run casinos, all of them upstate. Limited electronic gambling is allowed at so-called racinos at nine tracks, including Empire City in Yonkers and the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.

The amendment to authorize full-scale gambling in new casinos will likely face significant public opposition, but supporters contend the move could offer huge financial benefits for the state, generating massive tax revenues and creating jobs upstate.

The state expects to receive upward of $700 million from the racinos in 2013. Supporters say allowing them to expand into Las Vegas-style gambling would substantially increase that figure.

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