By Nathan Mayberg
MONTICELLO October 24. 2006 Hundreds of people gathered in front of Monticello Raceway last Thursday to show their support for a casino there. The vast majority of them were union members, although the crowd also included a cross-section of the local community.
The rally occurred at the time the United States Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs is considering whether to put the St Regis Mohawk Tribe through a lengthy environmental review or to allow them to pass by on the shorter environmental assessment form which they have submitted.
The speakers represented some of the top elected officials in the county. New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and New York State Senator John Bonacic both voiced their support for gaming, with Bonacic holding up a sign that read “Time to build.”
United States Congressman Maurice Hinchey was represented by his top assistant Chris White. Sullivan County legislator Sam Wohl and Sullivan County Republican Party Chairman John LiGreci did not shy away from the microphone. Town of Thompson Supervisor Anthony Cellini and Village of Monticello Mayor Jim Barnicle were two other longtime backers of casinos in Sullivan County who were on stage.
And Villa Roma General Manager and Chairman of the Sullivan County Visitors Association Board Paul Carlucci was another who believed a casino was critical to the rebirth of the Catskills.
In the crowd were political leaders who didn’t speak, such as legislators Leni Binder and Ron Hiatt both of whom support a casino at the raceway. Sullivan County Democratic Party boss Tim Hill was also there, as were former politicians and business people.
The pro-casino contingent on stage said they have been waiting too long. It has been ten years since the St. Regis Mohawks first joined with the owners of the Monticello Raceway for a casino. It has been three decades since the idea of bringing a casino to Sullivan County was first seriously considered. “We are closer now than ever before,” said Cellini.
Empire Resorts, which would manage the casino, is promising a casino will bring employment to 11,000 people, including thousands of construction jobs.
CEO David Hanlon, who used to work at casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, said he believed there were no more environmental impacts to study at the site. After all, the proposed site has been a gambling facility for nearly fifty years. The site can hold a million people, he stated. There have already been several environmental studies and five public hearings. He pledged the casino would be a good neighbor by providing the county with 15 million dollars a year and the Village of Monticello with five million.
All of the speakers were hopeful the BIA could approve the application in the next few weeks. Hinchey’s office has written a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for quick approval.
Bonacic guaranteed that New York State Governor George Pataki would sign off on the casino, once the BIA gives the go-ahead. That would be one of the final steps in bringing a casino to Sullivan County.
“The county is a tourism paradise,” said the senator. “It is doing ok. But it needs a catalyst.” A casino will bring hotels, restaurants and jobs, he told the crowd. Many in the audience held up signs saying “Time to Build,” “11,000 New Jobs,” and chanted “Jobs Now.”
Gunther was even more blunt. “It’s time to end the conversation and just do it.” A casino, in her view, was the answer to small business leaving, and the financial difficulties facing the county, the hospital and the college.
Casino opponents handed out a list of concerns, warning that property taxes go up in casino communities. Thousands of workers would need to be imported into a county with no affordable housing, they said. New schools will need to be built, leading to higher school taxes. Crime will rise, main streets will be devastated, and many locals will become problem gamblers, they cautioned.
Cellini responded to the worries of casino opponents by saying crime, lack of housing, traffic congestion and overcrowding in the schools, were already problems. “Study time is over. It’s time to move on.”
No other industries are stepping up to the plate, he said. And this county used to hold over 500 hotels and 5,000 bungalows, he said.
Barnicle said the raceway has not been a problem for the village, since they added video lottery machines. In fact, Empire Resorts helped save the job of a police officer two years ago, when the village did not have the money for his salary. Most importantly, the racino has created much needed jobs, he said.
Wohl was another who said the casino would revitalize the county. A $600 million gaming facility “will put us back on the map,” he said. “It’s time to make it happen.”
Hiatt, who has been on the fence for a while on the whole casino issue, said he was able to support this one because the operators have agreed to restrict those on public assistance and “deadbeat” dads from receiving credit. In addition, he said the mitigation fee could be increased after seven years to allow for inflation.