By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO January 11, 2005 After Fridays Sullivan County Legislature discussion with Greg Allen, chief counsel on Indian Affairs to New York State Governor George Pataki, the day featured two organized presentations by the opposing sides in the debate over casinos in the Borscht Belt.
The Catskill Casino Coalition was represented during its 30-minute speech by Town of Fallsburg Planning Board Vice-Chairman and co-owner of Steingart Associates Inc. Ira Steingart; Mona Tugender, co-owner of County Fountain Supplies; Katherine Spilde, who holds a doctorate in anthropology and who has spoken before at a presentation for Caesars Entertainment; Todd Diorio, President of the Hudson Valley Building and Construction Trades Council; and Terry Riley, President of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
Casino-Free Sullivan County also gave a speech, which ran nearly the same amount of time, through Callicoon Center resident Richard Riseling. Steve Knutsen, pastor of the United Methodist Church in Rock Hill, and Terry Murphy of Wolf Lake joined him.
The pro-casino side was first to go. Steingart described himself as the fourth generation of his familys century-old South Fallsburg business. Steingart himself has served on his towns planning board for about 15 years.
In the 1980s, former resorts such as the Concord, Browns and Grossingers represented 90 percent of his business. The demise of the resorts hurt his bottom line. He said that the area once was home to hundreds of hotels and therefore could handle five casinos, adding that the County Legislature held the keys to our economic survival.
Tugender said that both of her children have no plans of returning to Sullivan County, due to a lack of opportunities. Casinos, she said, would offer local careers for young people.
In addition, casinos would invite spin-off businesses, including retail, which would keep sales tax dollars in the county.
Diorio suggested that the casinos and their resorts would provide full-time construction jobs. He said most of his workers have seasonal employment. Diorio added that the wages of construction workers would rise as a result of the construction of gaming facilities.
Riley said that casinos would raise the median income of the average family and lower the illiteracy rate, which he put at 11.6 percent.
Dr. Spilde said that casinos would offer high-level professional positions as well as entry-level jobs with good benefits.
Sullivan County Legislator Jodi Goodman added that casinos in Sullivan County would keep dollars from traveling upstate and out-of-state to other casinos.
Sam Wohl, a legislator whose district includes the Town of Thompson, sympathized with Steingart and Tugender. He said he was in the wholesale business and understood what it was like searching out of town to find customers.
Chief Jim Ransom of the St. Regis Mohawks, and Bob Chicks, President of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, gave short statements expressing their desire to work with the county to move the process along.
Riseling closed out the day by giving the most extended statement of all. In a prepared speech, he argued that casinos did not create economic development. Economic activity does not mean economic development, he said.
Speaking on behalf of Casino-Free Sullivan County, he stated that casinos had stark impacts on local and state budgets. He said the last 20 years have proven that casinos are a drag on local government.
In addition, he said gambling caused great harm to the societal welfare. He said it was painful and disappointing to plead with you not to do us harm.
Riseling said the county was on the move economically. He believed the county could continue to improve by marketing its natural beauty. Such a policy could attract more people than casinos and create thousands of jobs, he argued.
He estimated that five casinos would triple the economy in the county by taking in over three billion dollars in profit. By doing so, he said the county would once again be dominated by a single industry never a good idea, in his view.
He said the amount of jobs the casinos would bring would necessitate a large influx of out-of-county residents to the area. Riseling contended that the advertised starting pay was not a livable wage.
In addition, Riseling believed the strain on local schools could add up to an unfunded deficit of $100 million.
In Connecticut, Riseling said the state had taken on tens of millions of dollars of debt and raised taxes despite the mitigation fees paid by two of the most successful casinos in the world.
Riseling believed that crime, traffic and the welfare rolls would all rise as a result of the new gaming.
Other negative social effects could include an increase in youth addiction to gambling, a rise in suicides and more child abuse, warned Riseling.
He said the casinos should be required to pay $70 million each to the county for as long as they are in operation to satisfy the impacts they will have on the area. If the current agreements stood, he believed the county would lose money. A new county jail could cost up to $90 million, he pointed out.
In response to the environmental impact statements of some of the proposed casinos, Riseling stated that the companies make a mockery of the state environmental review process.
He said the many poor residents of the county would only be hurt by the attraction of gambling, where the house only wins. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the efforts to pull people out of poverty in Sullivan County.
Finally, the former educator believed that the county did not need casino gaming. Recent developments such as Crystal Run and the construction of Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and initiatives such as Sullivan First are taking the county down the right path.
In addition to developing projects that attract visitors to the areas environment, Riseling called on leaders to join with him in working on clean, renewable energy ventures, such as wind energy.
After the Speeches
Afterwards, Sullivan County Legislature Chairman Chris Cunningham commended the various speakers and called the exchange with Allen informative. Cunningham said it was important that we reflect on what we heard. Cunningham has not been in favor of casinos for the last several years but said he was keeping an open mind.
Sullivan County Republican Party Chairman and Legislator Greg Goldstein said he favored five casinos but wants the state to pay the county up front, before the casinos open. He said the impact fees from the tribes would not kick in until the casinos were up and running, yet there would be significant costs to the county beforehand.