THE BLOG
03/04/2014 02:37 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2014

Gaming Talk in the OC: No Dice on Economic Development in Catskills

Casinos in Affluent Orange County contradict Gaming Amendment and True Economic Development for Upstate NY.

There are a few weeks to go before the selection process begins to site a number of casinos in upstate New York.

Now, suddenly, there's a well heeled drive by casino developers in affluent Orange County to steal those proposed $500 million destination resorts from contenders in the Catskills.

That spells big trouble for those pushing to redevelop the Catskill Mountains and to bring much needed economic activity to one of the most impoverished regions in New York State and the US.

Affluent Orange County, with its middle and upper class bedroom communities, bustling shopping centers, and successful industrial parks, is now in the game too. There are daily reports in the Times Herald Record about meetings between casino developers and county and local officials to explore building casinos near the Woodbury Commons Mall and the interchange of I-84 and I-87 near Newburgh.

That's not the way it was supposed to go down.

Soon a state appointed Facilities Location Board will begin the process of deciding which counties will play host to the initial four casinos. If downstate Orange County is in the mix, its proximity to the New York City metro area, which it is part of, will render the true Catskill locations unattractive to casino developers.

And if Albany approves even one such casino in Orange County, the dream of resort destination development with casinos in the Catskills will greatly suffer.

The decay of the Sullivan County Catskills as a tourist destination has resulted in a devastated economy. Its unemployment rate is constantly in the double digits. In terms of health rankings, Sullivan County ranks the worst in the state, only second to the Bronx. Many of its once prosperous villages and hamlets are now ghost towns.

Only casino gaming can begin to stimulate the region's redevelopment.

Last November, voters in New York State went to the polls and voted to change the New York State Constitution to allow for legalized Casino Gaming in their state. This was long overdue. Sullivan County, which worked a half century for this change, garnered the highest favorable vote in the state for the amendment.

Governor Cuomo's great efforts to bring about this change were met with anticipation and enthusiasm by Sullivan County's business and local and state political leaders. It was truly a historic event in the history of the Catskills.

The legislative intent of Proposal One called for "up to seven casinos for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to school, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated."

Proposal One was from the start pushed as an economic redevelopment initiative for the Catskills and upstate New York. It was touted as "the most significant statewide business- and community-development initiatives in decades"

And also from the beginning, the destitute former Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountain region, particularly indigent Sullivan County, was targeted under the plan to be one of the first areas to have at least one, if not two new destination casinos.

Despite the original intent, now there are new arguments by casino developers looking at Orange County to change the focus of the Amendment. They insidiously and falsely claim that it was a measure to legalize gambling to maximize revenues to the State-and Orange County's coffers too.

And in terms of maximizing the revenues to the state's coffers, 30 miles further north will make no difference since Sullivan County is still much closer to the Tri-State metropolitan area than other casino destinations in neighboring states.

In terms of tourism, placing the casinos in the majestic Catskills instead of the suburban sprawl of Orange County will enhance New York State tourism in many other respects, including building an eco-tourist segment in upstate New York.

Even talking about casinos in Orange County goes against the spirit of the constitutional language of the new amendment and the intent and purpose of the new law. It also contradicts Governor Cuomo's sponsorship for the proposal.

The day after the proposal passed Governor Cuomo, came to Sullivan County to celebrate at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts located above the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. There, he lauded the building of casinos in the Catskills as "a huge, huge win for the State of New York."

"This is a game-changer," Cuomo told a crowd of excited local Catskill officials and businesspeople. "I think it is going to fundamentally change the economy of the Catskills."

So the race was on, and in Sullivan County, there were a number of sites being immediately touted, with one or two practically shovel ready to break ground late in 2014.

That was in November. Now, in March, casino developers looking at Orange County are attempting to change the game before it really begins.

Bottom Line: In terms of the legal and political intent that led to the passage of Proposal One, Orange County shouldn't even be considered as a serious gaming development site.