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Democrat Photo by Nathan Mayberg

THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE sat or stood around almost every video lottery terminal inside the completely revamped first floor of Monticello Raceway at the racino’s grand opening Wednesday.

'The Mighty M Is Back'

By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO — July 2, 2004 – “There is a renaissance under way here,” said Robert Berman, CEO of Empire Resorts, as decades of fighting and waiting came to an end Wednesday with the opening of 1,800 video lottery terminals at Monticello Raceway.
While not everybody is cheering in the county, nearly 10,000 people steadily streamed in and out of Mighty M Gaming at Monticello Raceway’s gaming floor from 10 a.m. until closing at 2 a.m.
It is currently the largest racino in New York State.
Hundreds of people lined up outside the 46-year-old track prior to its opening. They hailed from as far away as Suffolk County, Long Island to Pennsylvania, New Jersey – and plenty of seasonal residents from Florida.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, State Senator John Bonacic, New York State Assembly Chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Committee Alexander Gromack and William Larkin – State Senate Chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Committee – were all on hand to witness the opening of the $27 million investment.
Berman thanked them for “being our champions in Albany.” He said he was “saddened that one of our oldest friends, Jake Gunther,” was not there.
Berman said he was now proud to be the largest employer in the village – and that includes the raceway itself.
“Horseracing is and will always be a part of the plan here,” he pledged.
He also thanked the hundreds of construction workers who had built Sullivan County’s newest attraction over the last several months.
Assemblywoman Gunther said she was “overwhelmed. I think they did a phenomenal job.” She recalled the days her father used to visit the raceway and bring his family along on Sundays. But in the last few years, the people had stopped coming.
The video lottery terminals will help “the horsemen,” she said. Gunther is also hoping for an economic spin-off to the community.
“There is a lot of excitement in this community. . . . I feel an energy I haven’t felt before.”
And she loved the music, as Strawberry Fields, a Beatle look-alike and sound-alike band, entertained the crowd.
State Senator Bonacic said, “Today is an exciting day for Sullivan County. It is a continuation of a renaissance for Sullivan County.”
He said the racino would help tourism, as would this summer’s groundbreaking at the Bethel performing arts center. Casinos are on their way too, he said.
“Every day, we get closer to casinos.”
What about negative impacts on the local community?
“Wherever you have gambling, there will be negative impacts,” Bonacic responded.
The county will have to negotiate a host fee, he said.
“It is a wonderful day,” he concluded. “Everybody is having a good time.”
Village of Monticello Mayor James Barnicle called the racino “a destination spot that will become the cornerstone of our economic development. . . . It’s great that all of these local people are working at this racino.”
Barnicle said he would continue to develop Broadway so that there are attractions for people after they leave the raceway. He called the refurbished track “a win-win for everyone.”
Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce President Jacquie Leventoff said, “It shows what can be done if people really want to do something. I think the spinoff to the local community will be tremendous.”
Sure enough, several local businesses in proximity to the raceway were seeing large upswings. The Best Western Hotel may have seen the greatest immediate gain. Their parking lot was filled with several dozen cars Wednesday evening.
Michael Hoblock, chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, called the opening “wonderful. I think it will be very successful.” He thought the village and county would benefit as well – not to mention horse racing, whose purses have soared already at Monticello Raceway.
Hoblock said that Monticello’s facility was much larger than the three others in the state, which have already opened (Buffalo Raceway, Finger Lakes and Saratoga Raceway). He estimated that Aqueduct and Yonkers would not be opening for another 12-18 months.
“I give the investors and management of this facility a great deal of credit,” said Hoblock.
Sullivan County Legislator Leni Binder simply said, “Hey – it just looks good to see people here.”
There was even a Joan Rivers impersonator named Holly Faris, who came all the way “from South Jersey” to greet visitors.
Joyce Fox, of Waymart, Pennsylvania, was one of the big winners of the day. She picked up $250 on one of the 25-cent Triple 7 games.
“I like it so far,” she said. “It is paying me more than Atlantic City has in the last year. I am going to win that $2,500 [grand prize].”
Jeanne Bastone was pleased with the games, as well as the raceway’s short distance from her home in the Bronx.
“It’s only an hour and fifteen minutes from the Bronx. Connecticut is two hours, and Atlantic City is two and a half hours away.”
She was just one of many who said they would now be visiting Monticello instead of the Taj Mahal.
Besides, Bastone’s sister-in-law lives in Wolf Lake.
Her husband thought the racino was “pretty cool, but I play tables.”
Billie Joe Anderson of Middletown was also looking for gambling tables.
“I shoot dice,” he said.
Salvatore Indelicato, supervisor of the Town of Cochecton, called the racino “a step in the million-mile walk. . . . I think it will bring people to the county. For the most part, it will be a positive step.”
What kind of an impact will 1,800 video lottery terminals have on Monticello? Figuratively speaking, Indelicato said he has seen more real estate activity there in the last 12 months than in the last 20 years. Of course, that is also a result of 9/11 and the prospects of a full-fledged casino in Monticello and a performing arts center in Bethel, he said.
As music like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Four Tops, and Simon and Garfunkel played through the speakers, games like Best of the Best Monticello, Cleopatra, New York Gold and Sizzling 7 shined bright at a track that was once struggling to survive.
Customer David Appel called Mighty M Gaming at Monticello Raceway “the greatest thing that happened to Sullivan County in 50 years.”
Some of the customers were new to the idea of slot machines or video lottery terminals, however.
“It is my second time I ever did it. It is fun,” said Tracy North.
She then won $85 – not bad for a $10 investment. Unlike other people, North knew when to cash out – unlike others, one of whom spent $400 on the machines.
Noreen Bevacqua called the facility “very nice.” But she added that the terminals should have a rest rail at the bottom, like in Atlantic City.
“A lot of these people are older and are looking for comfort,” she said.
Stephanie Zub, a Florida resident with a summer home in the county, said the racino is “going to bring jobs to the area . . . which are sorely needed. The housing market has taken off.”
Her mother, Carol Knapp, a year-round county resident, thought the racino was “excellent for the area. ... We used to go to Mohegan Sun. Now we can come here. . . . It’s the best thing that Sullivan County could have ever done. It brings a lot of jobs to the area.”
Katerina Cronk of Liberty called it “great. I never expected to see it happen.”
There was nobody more enthusiastic than Louann Schiavone and her husband Robert of Port Jervis. Said Louann, “We love it. We couldn’t wait for it to open up. It is a nice, quick ride. . . . We can come here after dinner.”
Added Rob, “No more traveling to Atlantic City. . . . I can save on gas.”
Which means he can gamble more, he said.
They even watched the racino being built on the Internet.
“This is only the beginning,” promised Louann. “It is just going to continuously grow. . . . The restaurants will grow. . . . This will bring people here so they can see the beautiful area.”
Ed Cohen of Smallwood said, “I love it. It is a long time coming. The whole neighborhood looks good. . . . It hasn’t looked this good in years.”
Frank McEneney of East Islip, however, was hoping the revenue from the machines could pave the roads in the village.
“The roads are terrible here,” he observed.
Eileen Ciardo of Damascus, Pennsylvania, intends to come back often.
“Oh, you better believe,” she said. “We used to travel to [Turning Stone Casino]. This is only a half an hour from me. On the weekend, you are going to be packed here.”
Regina Allen of Loch Sheldrake was also relieved that she would be saving gas and miles.
“Traveling back and forth to Atlantic City – it’s too much.”
Lorraine Davis of Monticello lamented, “I wish I could hear the tingle of the money.” (Nearly all of the games were returning the winnings in tickets.)
But the angrier folks were not at the racino – they were across the street. About 20 people protested the racino with big banners that said “Casino-Free Sullivan County” or claimed the racino degraded to the county.
Back on the racetrack, horses were racing for purses, which had never been this high on a regular basis.
During the eighth race, about 75 people were sitting in the grandstand, taking in the races. That many people hadn’t watched a race on a Wednesday afternoon in Monticello in years, said officials.
“The Mighty M is back,” exclaimed John Manzi of the marketing department for Mighty M Gaming at Monticello Raceway. (He will be spinning ‘50s and early ‘60s music on Monday nights.) “It is going to help Sullivan County be a destination once again.”

Contributed Photo

ABOUT HALF A dozen people showed up at the entrance to the Monticello Raceway Wednesday morning to protest the opening of what is, in essence, a mini-casino in Sullivan County.

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