By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO For the past few decades, forces in Sullivan County have been attempting to secure a gambling casino, but its only been recently that significant progress has been made.
Six years ago, approvals were finally given to begin that process, and it seemed that a casino was imminent. Since that time, everything from lawsuits to secret deals to politics has brought the casino projects to a veritable halt.
But once again, local officials are claiming that a casino in one form or another is about to happen.
"We are very close to the brass ring," Casino Advisory Committee member and Sullivan County Legislator Bob Kunis said Tuesday night at the Town of Thompson board meeting in Monticello. "We are very optimistic. We have to be firm. We cannot have one person or group screw it up."
The current incarnation of the gaming committee was formed late last year to continue negotiations with casino company Park Place Entertainment in their attempt to situate an Indian-run casino in Monticello. The committee consists of Sullivan County Legislature Chair Rusty Pomeroy, Kunis, Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development Chair Jerry Skoda, Sullivan County Republican Party Chair Greg Goldstein, and Town of Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini.
Updates were given on the situation at a special Sullivan County Legislature Executive Committee meeting on Thursday, January 18 and at the Thompson meeting this past Tuesday.
Members of the committee explained that they had met with officials in Connecticut, where there are two Indian gaming casinos. They were given an idea of some the issues they may have to deal with if a casino comes into this area, including a population influx, an increase in court and police activity, traffic, medical staffing increases, and litigation threats. Such words of warning caused some committee members to step back and re-evaluate the situation.
"After seeing these issues, we asked ourselves if we were sure we really wanted this here," Cellini stated at the meetings. "[But] the pros do outweigh the cons."
Cellini stated that the casino the committee traveled to in Connecticut has 5,000 slot machines. Those machines bring in $1.5 million an hour, and the local county keeps eight percent.
The committee also mentioned the lawyer, John Jacobson, that Sullivan County has hired to help with negotiations. Park Place gave the county a $25,000 escrow check to pay for his services. Committee members said that Jacobson has been very helpful and will be meeting with Park Place on January 30.
It was pointed out that nothing has been approved yet. The county nor the town has adopted any resolutions to approve the casino. According to committee members, thats their biggest bargaining chip.
"Federal statute requires the consent of the communities involved," County Attorney Ira Cohen said at Thompson's meeting. "For the state to approve the application, they will need the resolutions. We will look at all the impacts [before they pass the resolutions]."
Catskill Development had a deal for a casino at the Monticello Raceway, which fell through when the tribe they were dealing with, the St. Regis Mohawks, were wooed away by Park Place, for which Catskill is suing Park Place. Committee members, however, said Catskills trying to get back in on the process. CEO Robert Berman has contacted the committee and asked for a letter from Park Place to set up an agreement. One was sent but was rejected by Berman because it did not come from Park Place Chair Tom Gallagher.
The committee, stating that they would not play games, enlisted the help of NY Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton for negotiations. While they have spoken to both offices, help has yet to be offered.
If an agreement could be reached, it could speed the process along, as Park Place has a federally approved tribe, and Catskill Development has a federally approved piece of land upon which to situate a casino.
"Both sides [Catskill and Park Place] want it bad," Goldstein stated. "We have the approval. That is a big piece of the puzzle."