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Racinos change course, throw support behind Cuomo's casino plans

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

After months of lobbying and millions of dollars spent, New York's gaming interests are now throwing their support behind Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to create four new casinos upstate if voters approve Las Vegas-style gambling in the fall.

On Thursday, the New York Gaming Association issued a statement saying the group -- which also represents the Empire City Casino in Yonkers -- are backing a deal reached late Monday night between Cuomo and the state's legislative leaders.

"The inclusion of competitive tax parity, a plan that keeps the three Western New York racetrack casinos as vital partners to state and localities, and the assurance that our two successful downstate partners can continue providing good paying jobs and generating significant funding for schools are significant improvements from earlier drafts of this bill and critical to our support," James Featherstonhaugh, the association's president, said.

Tayrn Duffy, a spokeswoman for Empire City, issued a similar statement praising the new deal.

"The plan, which initially allows up to four casinos in upstate New York, should not materially impact Empire City's business and will allow us to continue our development efforts to enhance our property and grow our business," she said.

Duffy said Empire City will "compete for, and secure a license" when they are available. "We believe we will be in the best possible position to do so when the opportunity to bid on a downstate full gaming license is permitted," she said.

The move is a reversal for the gaming association, which spent in excess of $3 million in 2012 lobbying against previous manifestations of the plan, according to a report from the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics. The association was concerned the state's nine existing "racinos" would lose market share if Las-Vegas style casinos were approved.

Empire City Casino in Yonkers, which includes the Yonkers Raceway harness 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.

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.

The Monday agreement allows Las Vegas-style resort casinos near Binghamton, the Hudson Valley-Catskills area and near Albany. 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.

A commission appointed by the governor 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.

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.

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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