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Friday, November 07, 2014

Times Pours (Ice) Cold Water on Catskills' Casino Dreams

Casino supporters in the Catskills may be wondering about the tone and the timing of this article in the New York Times:  Poconos Casino Offers Lesson as New York Weighs Proposals in Catskills.  It's a bleak lesson indeed being taught by the Paper of Record, and it comes now, after all these months of speculation, just days before the Location Board, presumably in the home stretch of this process, is scheduled to go into closed session on Monday to evaluate the various proposals.

Seven years after opening, the Mount Airy Casino Resort has fewer than half of the hotel envisioned by developers, and a third of the slot machines promised in news releases. It has generated about half of the slot revenue forecast by Pennsylvania officials, and little economic spillover has occurred outside the resort. Expansion plans have long since been shelved. The much-heralded charitable foundation has raised a grand total of $1, federal filings show. Those funds have not been distributed.
As New York State officials prepare to announce up to four new casinos, the case of Mount Airy — once advertised as "Your host with the most in the Poconos" — offers a cautionary lesson for residents and elected leaders in another faded postwar vacationland desperate to reinvent itself: the Catskill Mountains. The Catskills were once home to 500 hotels and scores of bungalow colonies, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislators have talked up gambling as a path back to prosperity.
In 2006, Pennsylvania projected that the Mount Airy site would generate $269 million per year in revenue from slot machines alone. It has never come close. Slot revenue peaked in 2008 at $176 million and fell last year to $143 million. Table games were added in 2010 and total gambling revenue reached $190 million in 2012 but fell 3 percent to $183 million last year. [NYT]
The article touches on all the areas of skepticism that we've touched upon in the last few months: over saturation, the self-containment of the casino which results in little benefits for surrounding businesses, increases in traffic and accidents, and the "dissonance between resort gambling and traditional family-friendly attractions." But as much as we tend to agree with those observations, and as much as we dislike casinos, this article strikes me as being exceedingly negative and one-sided...and you know that we don't particularly like when the Times does that either.  From reading this article, one would think that the only person in the entire town who is happy is some dude, a.k.a. The Goldfather, who is apparently an unlicensed pawnbroker.

I mean, if the reporter really wanted to, he could have surely, and if nothing else, found at least a few people for whom the casino has provided stable employment and benefits that he/she didn't have before. And, in mentioning the Sands casino in Bethlehem as one of the competing facilities, he could have pointed out that that casino is considered by many to have actually been "successful" in helping to revitalize a depressed area (the poor gamblers on whose backs that has occurred aside).

Having said that however, the point of the article is that the circumstances of the Mount Airy casino are similar to that of the Catskills - a casino with recreational and resort amenities in a once-thriving-with-tourists but now struggling rural setting - as opposed to the Sands casino, which is an urban one. But even here, this article simply does not have its facts straight.
Yet each of the three proposals for Catskill casinos — in or around the borscht belt destinations of Ellenville, Kiamesha Lake and Monticello — is on the scale of what was envisioned for Mount Airy: hundreds of hotel rooms, thousands of slot machines, dozens of blackjack tables. Myriad dining and entertainment options, championship golf courses, zip lines, water parks. Acres of parking for the anticipated hordes of visitors.
I dug up the original 2006 presentation for Mount Airy, (a very large PDF file) and, contrary to the above passage, what was envisioned was actually on a decidedly smaller scale than what we're seeing in the Catskills and elsewhere in New York.

No championship golf courses, zip lines, water parks, big entertainment nor "myriad" dining options here; just a pool, a spa, and a few restaurants. (The coffee shop turned out to be a Starbucks.)  Though it did present a visual depiction that was most definitely more polished than the finished product.

I'm impressed that the artist got the presence of birds in the water right, though they're swans rather than ducks.

So the projects being proposed in the Catskills are actually significantly more ambitious than what was promised at Mount Airy as far as its non-gambling features go. And, though I'm still skeptical that this model will prove to be successful - and therefore, as I said, would basically tend to agree with the glum outlook being presented - this biased and inaccurate article does seem unfair to the folks in the Catskills who are just so desperate for the kind of economic relief that they truly believe these casinos, for which they have been praying for so many years, will provide.   I have to imagine that they must be wondering why the paper didn't instead focus its wrath on projects that developers are trying to force down communities' throats.


Dan said...

Remember the commercial from the 1980's- "Beautiful Mounty Airy Lodge".....

Dan said...

Sorry "Mount Airy Lodge"

Anonymous said...

This line is key: "little economic spillover has occurred outside the resort."