By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO In front of cheering hundreds, Entertainment Properties Trust (EPT) and Empire Resorts officials vowed to make the county not just a gambling but vacation mecca.
“We want to bring our business to a completely different level,” said Emanuel “Manny” Pearlman, chair of Empire’s board, which oversees Monticello Casino and Raceway. “There’s going to be a large component of non-casino development on the property.”
That property is more than 1,500 acres encompassing the bulk of the former Concord Resort in Kiamesha Lake.
Empire and EPT revealed their plans for that acreage at a special meeting of the Town of Thompson Board on Thursday, held inside BOCES’ St. John Street Center in Monticello due to the enormous crowd.
After decades of broken promises and dreams by other resort promoters, Pearlman nevertheless fearlessly predicted, “You’re bound to see something very special.”
The Powerpoint presentation was by then already under way, with spots on a map marked as “resort neighborhoods,” “sporting club,” “family resort” and, of course, “casino.”
The map also contained unusual resort features, like apartments for workforce housing.
“It’s not just about getting a gaming customer up here that’s not sustainable,” explained Jim Tinson, CEO of Hart Howerton, the site’s master developer and a Disney World designer.
But the relocation of Monticello’s racino is the focus of the first phase of the $600 million project, with promoters anticipating a groundbreaking as early as this November.
The 50,000-square-foot casino (holding 2,000 NYS Lottery-run video gaming machines), underground parking garage and neighboring 5/8-mile harness racetrack would supplant a section of the famed Monster golf course near the intersection of Joyland and Thompsonville roads, just north of Route 17’s redone Exit 106.
Accommodations for the horses and their trainers would remain at the current raceway, though despite promises to redevelop the 64-year-old racetrack the relocation already has Monticello officials worried, since the new location is outside village boundaries (and thus taxing jurisdiction).
The Monster golf course would also be redesigned, and the first phase of a hotel would be erected as part of the casino.
“As the market dictates, the rest of the site will be built out,” explained Steve Vegliante, known as Fallsburg’s supervisor but here acting as EPT’s/Empire’s local attorney.
Future phases would include a family resort, conference center, second and third hotel, larger casino (if gambling is legalized), workforce and baby boomer housing, RV park, lake club, water park, spa, restaurants, movie theatre, nightclub, skating rink, event field and even a “village” consisting of townhomes, a civic center and medical services.
In the meantime, on Thursday, the Thompson Town Board unanimously agreed to begin the environmental review process, setting a scoping session for the April 10 board meeting at 7:30 p.m. at the town hall.
Board members referred requested zoning amendments to the planning board, though the town board intends to become lead agency.
Is this for real?
“It’s not only buildable but sustainable,” predicted Vegliante on Thursday.
“We’ve spent the last six to nine months on the ground talking to leaders in this community,” added Tinson. “We specialize in settings like this special situations that require unique solutions ... to create one-of-a-kind places that last.”
Perhaps most importantly, said Pearlman, “this project is not dependent on the changing of any existing law in New York State.”
That’s because, in essence, it’s the transfer of Monticello’s existing racino to a site four miles east.
Also encouraging them to act is the fact that EPT, according to CEO David Brain, is losing money on one of the largest investments in the company’s current portfolio.
“It’s costing me a million dollars a month in foregone income,” he told the crowd Thursday. “... So I’m very impatient, and I know you are, too.”
And he’s apparently not planning on selling the acreage.
“We’re not a developer and flipper of properties,” Brain explained. “We’re an owner and investor of properties.”
In the meantime, EPT and Empire likely have the trade unions’ support.
“You have our pledge,” said Pearlman to cheers from the audience. “All of the construction jobs on site will be union, and potentially all the jobs at the casino will be union.”
The state has mandated that whatever is built at the Concord eventually employs 1,000 people.
What about Cappelli?
Original Concord developer Louis Cappelli was once aligned with both Empire and EPT, but relations have deteriorated in the past two years.
In fact, last week, Cappelli and his Concord redevelopment companies sued Empire and EPT for more than a billion dollars in alleged damages.
EPT gained control of most of the Concord Resort save for about 200 acres where the original hotel sat in 2010 after Cappelli’s companies defaulted on a $162 million loan EPT had made to the project.
Cappelli said in the just-filed lawsuit that he had worked out a cooperative casino development agreement with EPT to ensure mutually compatible uses on his and EPT’s properties.
But he alleged that Empire, now controlled by a Malaysian-based gaming and entertainment giant, “secretly conspired” with EPT to create its own racino, leaving Cappelli unable to incorporate gambling into his hotel plans (unless he were to secure his own harness track license or work with an Indian tribe, or the state were to legalize gaming).
EPT and Empire deny Cappelli’s accusations of interference in his plans and indicated on Thursday that they aren’t seeking a fight.
“We’re not opposed to other people and other plans at all,” said Brain. “We’re going to honor all those obligations [to Cappelli].”
Empire, however, just lost a court battle where it sought to nullify the Town of Thompson’s building permit extensions given to Cappelli and company.
Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini believes Cappelli’s lawsuit isn’t intended to stop Empire and EPT’s plans just to allow another casino resort next door.
“They [Empire/EPT] don’t seem to believe it’s an obstacle,” Cellini said yesterday. “We’ll work with both.”