By Matt Youngfrau
ROCK HILL September 26, 2003 Some people have waited more than 30 years for gambling in Sullivan County.
According to the experts, they may have to wait at least another four years.
That was just one of many revelations to come from the Second Annual Catskills Casino Conference held in a tent in the parking lot of Bernies Holiday Restaurant in Rock Hill Wednesday.
The conference was presented by the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce. More than 350 people from throughout the county, neighboring areas, the state, and elsewhere came to the full-day conference to find out where Catskill gaming stands.
The day was divided into four seminars and a keynote speaker. Experts from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Mississippi, and the involved Native American tribes gave their perspectives on how it was going, where it was going, what the area could expect and what it should be wary of.
The day began with an overview of the Stockbridge-Munsee project proposed off Exit 107 of Route 17 east of Monticello. Speaking for the involved groups were Tribe President Robert Chicks and Trading Cove Managing Partner Len Wolman.
We want this to be a destination point, Chicks commented. We will change the themes on a regular basis. We want the casino to be new and fresh time and again. We are very excited and want to be a part of your community. We look forward to continue working with you.
We have methodically put the pieces together for the casino plans, Wolman remarked. It will be a unique, one-of-a-kind facility. We want to make it how the customer and the community wants it. We will move to fruition.
The casino will be located on 330 acres of land. The $600 million project will feature world-class gaming, restaurants, and many other amenities.
The groups created and operate the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. The proposed casino in the Town of Thompson will be very similar to that.
The first seminar focused on legal and regulatory issues. It was moderated by Sullivan County Attorney Ira Cohen.
Also on the panel were Albany Law School government lawyer-in-residence Robert Batson, New York State Senator (representing parts of Orange and Ulster counties) William Larkin Jr., Attorney Cornelius Murray (representing those suing the state over its approval of Indian gaming), and Director of the BIAs office of Indian Gaming Management George Skibine.
We are looking forward to the prospects, Cohen commented. We are concerned about the impacts, and the contracts we negotiated mitigate those impacts.
Murray spoke first. He stated that he and his colleagues get along well and agree to disagree. Murray said his purpose was to discuss where the litigation stands and not the pros and cons of the issue. His narrow focus was whether or not the legislation was legal.
The state prohibits commercial gambling, Murray said. It is only legal for a religious or charitable purpose. Otherwise, it violates the state constitution.
The judge in the case ruled the legislation was legal. Murray has filed an appeal. He expects that decision will be appealed and it will end up in the United States Supreme Court. Murray said that, when all is said and done, a decision should be issued in a year and a half or two years.
Batson then spoke about his vision of the law.
We have no jurisdiction on Indian land, Batson stated. Due to the Indian Gaming Regulation Act of 1988, we can negotiate in good faith.
Larkin then went over the history of his Senate committee, Racing and Wagering. He talked about how close they came to legalizing gambling in 1997 then how it went the Indian gaming route.
We need to stop the nonsense, Larkin stated. We have a golden opportunity to sit down and work this all out. If it went to a vote, the people would overwhelmingly approve it. There has not been enough pressure to make the judges make a decision. We deserve the opportunities.
Larkin did announce that the Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) were moving forward. By the end of this year and the beginning of next year, many tracks including Monticello Raceway should have the VLTs.
Skibine started by saying he wished he could tell the crowd something new. He stated that there were still many hurdles to go over before the projects could be approved. He added that three tribes had filed applications, and that there were rumors of other applications to be filed. However, only three were filed for Sullivan County (which is all the state will currently allow).
A recent issue has been whether the tribes should do an environmental assessment or an impact statement. He said it would be judged on a case-by-case basis. The Department of Justice has recommended that they require impact statements.
If the land-to-trust application is approved, it would go to New York State Governor George Pataki for his approval. Then a deal must be made.
There are also 30 days allowed for legal challenges. Skibine stated that in all but one recent case, they all have been legally challenged.
It could happen very quickly, Skibine said. We have a two-part determination. That could take a couple of months. After that, the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] takes six months. Then its a couple of months to decide it before it goes to the governor.
We could spend the day discussing this, Cohen concluded. There is a great deal of uncertainty. It may take longer, but it will be better in the long run.
I would go away if there was a constitutional amendment, Murray stated in response to a question on his litigation. If it was put to the people, it would pass. The arguments would not go away. However, that is not a lead pipe cinch. The people should decide.
Next up was a seminar on the economic and community impacts. Experts from Biloxi, Mississippi and Atlantic City, New Jersey discussed impacts in their areas. And precautions in Sullivan County were looked at.
The session was moderated by the chair of the Chambers New Member and Member Retention Committee, Shirley Felder. The panel consisted of Biloxi Superintendent of Education Dr. Larry Drawdy, Recovery Center Director of Clinical Services Ellen Foster, Senior Regional Economist from R.P. Morgan Marc Michael Goloven, Project Consultant Ken Platt, and Managing Director of the Spectrum Group Michael Pollock.
Perceptions are real and believed in many ways, Drawdy remarked. You need to plan, plan, plan. Then you have to plan, plan, and plan some more. We have nine casinos. We still need to work out all the details. It is insurmountable if you dont work it out.
Drawdy said it took ten years to get where they are. The gaming establishments have given a great deal of money to the school district, and it has built some new schools. While there have been disagreements, they have benefitted greatly, he said.
They have been tremendous partners, Drawdy explained. They have helped a lot. You need to plan effectively.
Gambling can be pleasurable. It can also be a serious problem, Foster pointed out. We look at prevention and treatment. The problem has increased over the years. We help people deal with it.
Pollock looked at the history of Atlantic City, which had once reached bottom. Gambling and tourism helped to turn that around, he indicated.
Gambling does not evolve the same way twice, Pollock commented. We did not know what to expect. You have to keep expectations realistic. New Jersey made mistakes. It is a challenge anywhere.
Pollock urged working with the gaming companies so that everyone benefits. He also emphasized the need for good planning.
Goloven has written an article about the bright economic future of Sullivan County. He pointed out that Sullivan has seen development and decreases in unemployment while that is the opposite trend in the rest of the state.
You have been a magnet to attract business, Goloven said. You will recapture your faded glory. It is troubled times throughout the state. It is very different here. You have a sturdy foundation. You continue to grow. This is the preferred location of choice.
Platt is the director for the Department of Planning and Development in Atlantic City. He gave a history lesson on how the casinos improved life there.
You have to think outside the box, Platt stated. Sullivan County is way ahead. You have learned from others mistakes. Dont believe the pretty pictures and the timelines. Just push ahead. Many good things will happen.
Top of the Program
The keynote speaker was former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones. Jones is currently the senior vice president of Communications and Government Relations for gambling giant Harrahs Entertainment, Inc.
I have seen the good, bad, and the ugly, Jones stated. It is a dynamic industry. Some do not like gaming. They say it is about sin. It is about fun. With the right partnership and vision, it is a good revenue stream.
Jones stressed vision and being a partner with the casinos.
Sullivan County has the vision to see it and partner to the maximum benefits, Jones said. Sullivan County will not be Las Vegas. Everybody will thrive. Everybody will win.
Jones discussed the effects in various areas. She also claimed that the casinos are more entertainment venues than gambling halls. In fact, 60-70 percent of their operations are non-gaming.
You have to anticipate the needs, Jones said in conclusion. It must be collaborative. You can have it here. Dont lose sight.
We have to take her remarks to heart, Chamber President Jacquie Leventoff said afterwards. We have to work together and have a collective vision.
The third session focused on Niagara Falls. The Seneca Nation has had a casino open there since December 31.
A panel of experts looked at the changes to the area this year. The panel was moderated by Chamber Board Chair Arden Dean. On the panel was Vice President of Finance and Administration from the Seneca Niagara Casino Joseph DAmato; Jeter, Cook, and Jepson Architects President Peter Stevens; Niagara Falls Hotel/Motel Association President David Fleck; and Niagara Falls Coalition for Casino Gaming Chair Frank Roma.
DAmato discussed how quickly the casino was built in 100 days. They took over a convention center and got it done, he remarked. Since it opened, it has been hugely successful. They anticipate more than 5 million visitors by the end of the year.
This is just the beginning, DAmato said. There will be two more casinos.
It did happen quickly, Stevens agreed. When it happens, it happens quickly. This was a long-term vision by the tribe and the community. We are moving forward.
Stevens talked about the phases of the first casino, including hotels, a spa, restaurants, ice rink, and bowling alleys to be added. In the end, there will be 8,000 gaming stations, 1,700 hotel rooms, and 6,900 parking spots encompassing five million square feet.
Fleck talked about the competition between Niagara Falls and Canada. It was a major problem to develop Niagara, he said. Gambling has begun to turn that around.
It has fixed the city, commented Fleck. We work hand-in-hand. There has been a metamorphosis in the town. They took over the convention center, but we will get a new one. Their [the Indians] way is the right way. They came in the nick of time and saved us. It is still a tough road. We will survive. This was the only way to get out of the doldrums.
Roma talked about the relationship between the Catskills and Niagara. They have been partners since 1994. They still work together.
We stayed together as friends, Roma remarked. The Indians handshake is their word. We are a proud city. It created jobs. The city is moving ahead.
The last session was on the local project updates. It was moderated by the chambers immediate past chair, Scott Samuelson. The panel consisted of Chief Operating Officer of Empire Resorts Thomas Aro, President of Empire Resorts Morad Tahbaz, President of Monticello Raceway Cliff Ehrlich, Cayuga Indian Nation representative Clinton Halftown, Vice President for Construction from Park Place Entertainment Bob Kelly, Vice President of Park Place Entertainment Chuck Miller, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council Chief James Ransom, and President of the Catskill Casino Coalition Henry Bunce.
The Cayugas and Empire are partnering for a casino at the Monticello Raceway. There will also be VLTs and bingo parlors.
I believe actions speak louder than words, Halftown said. We have made progress. We will be successful. We are proud to be here as your friend and partner. We will be a vital part of Sullivan County.
Ehrlich gave a history of the racetrack. It was started by the hotel owners in 1958. They did get BIA approval in April 2000, and it remains only one of three approvals in the United States.
We have a solely New York focus, Ehrlich commented. I was born and raised here. We merged into one company. They are prominent business leaders.
Aro discussed the VLTs. They will be run by the New York State Lottery Division. Monticello has been approved for 1,800 machines. If demands go up, that could expand.
The lottery division feels the appeal will not hold up the process, Aro said. It is bulletproof. We are going forward. The lottery will review the plans, and we meet with them the first week of October.
The VLTs will create 374 jobs. They expect two million visitors a year to the track due to the VLTs.
The machines are cash and vouchers only. The first wave will mostly be $25 machines.
We have looked at this up, down, and sideways, Tahbaz remarked. We have spent a lot of years to get the project through.
They have spent $40 million so far on the project. They are moving forward. The casino will occupy 30 acres of land. It will have gaming, bingo, retail shops, and restaurants.
Bunce spoke about where they are in the process.
This has been an emotional and economic roller-coaster, Bunce stated. We wanted to know why nothing has happened. It has been quagmired. It is not a casino issue. It is a casino-in-the-Catskills issue. This area is the crown jewel.
Bunce stated that they had a meeting in Albany and Washington, D.C. with gaming officials. The next step will happen in within two weeks when they meet with the governor. They will ask that Pataki allow nine casinos instead of three.
What the Mohawks Are Up To
The last presentation was on the proposed St. Regis Mohawk/Park Place Entertainment Casino at Kutshers Sports Academy. It will be a hotel and a gaming facility.
We set high standards, Miller stated. We will move forward through foresight, courage, will, compassion, passion, and integrity.
I cant answer when it will happen, Ransom said. It is a lengthy process, and we cant control the challenges. We will have a presence in Sullivan County, and it will move closer to Sullivan County. We will open an office in Sullivan County in the next few weeks that will have a staff of Mohawks.
Ransom did state they were getting closer. They will begin discussions with the governor in a few months. At the same time, their completed application with the BIA will be filed.
Kelly went over the specifications of the casino. He said they will improve Anawana Lake Road and approvals from the DOT and the county have already come in.
Everyone has been cooperative, Kelly commented. We are being very thorough and methodical. There are many issues. We are working diligently. It takes a long time. We want it to look good.
Kelly said he was hopeful they could start construction sometime next year. He was confident it would happen by years end.
By next years conference, we hope a shovel will be in the ground, Leventoff said in conclusion. The future is bright in Sullivan County. It is up to us how bright it will be. We have to all work together.