I have been covering the casino industry on and off for the last two decades, and it seems that every year began and ended with the promise that casinos were about to come to the Catskills area of New York State.
Could 2014 finally be the year? New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders recently struck a deal that, pending voter approval this November, would clear the way for non-tribal casino development in three upstate regions—the Saratoga area, a strip of the state stretching from Rochester to Binghamton and, yes, the aforementioned Catskills. Four casino licenses would be available, and each region may include up to two casinos. This deal also calls for the establishment of 1,000-machine video lottery parlors at off-track betting sites in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. New York City and its suburbs will receive no additional gaming facilities.
Aware that previous deals to establish commercial casino in the area have met with failure at the ballot box, the legislation comes with a backup plan of sorts, the creation of four video lottery facilities, one in each of the three upstate regions mentioned above with an additional facility for Nassau County. These gaming developments would not require statewide ballot approval.
“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,” Gov. Cuomo told The Wall Street Journal.
All fine and good, but these days I wonder if regional casino development can truly work in these regions, especially the Catskills. That is really tough for me to admit since, as a 25-year New York City resident, I have spent a lot of time in the region, biking and hiking its hills and trails; and realize how badly the area needs an economic stimulus. In its heyday, the Catskills area was the pre-eminent, four-season tourist destination for urban-weary New York City residents, a mere two-hour drive from Manhattan. Although still a weekend destination for the NYC metro area, the Catskills have been in a quarter-century decline, passed over by most vacationers for more exotic and better appointed locales. Large-scale resort and town centers have long since been shuttered, as both tourists and residents leak away from the region.
As recently as 10 years ago, Catskill casino development appeared to be the perfect tonic for the region, a way to bring in much needed jobs and tax revenues for cash-strapped communities as well as restart the flow of tourists from the city. But the past decade has seen the expansion of casino-style gaming into many markets closer to New York City. Why should a gambler bypass these nearby properties just to schlep up to the Catskills? Sure, a massive new resort with the right amenity package might succeed in drawing visitors from New York City and elsewhere in the east, but the odds are long, and getting longer each year.
Indeed, if the New York Legislature were really interested in establishing large casinos at locations where they could really prosper and drive both jobs and revenue for the state, they should probably reconsider the moratorium on New York City gaming development. Given the size of its population, New York City is still drastically underserved when it comes to gaming. Also, the city and its five boroughs offer the best location for a Singapore-style integrated casino resort—the combination of retail, convention, entertainment and casino under one roof that has been such a smashing success in international tourist destinations, like New York City. Potential sites could start with the Jacob Javits Convention Center; after all it already has the convention business and a site that borders the scenic Hudson River.
As for the Catskills, maybe its future involves more boutique-style gaming—smaller, less-risky facilities that can still do a lot to improve local economies. Tourists heading to the mountains are usually looking to get away from it all; large, urban-scale casino resorts included.