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Westchester Business Leaders, Lawmakers Oppose Casinos For Orange

Christopher Chappelear

Business leaders and several lawmakers in Westchester County say they oppose any casino for Orange County. They say a casino there would hurt racino operations in Yonkers.

The Business Council of Westchester and a number of state assemblymembers gathered at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway Wednesday to voice their opposition to siting any casino in Orange County. Business Council Executive Vice President John Ravitz argues that doing so would cannibalize racino operations in Yonkers. Ravitz, a former state Assemblyman, says the voter-approved referendum last year to allow Las Vegas-style casino gambling in New York was intended only for upstate regions, including the Catskills.

“Clearly, Orange County was never considered during the debate and the writing of that bill as an upstate, distressed community,” says Ravitz. “And our biggest concern is if Orange County is allowed to have a full gaming license it will cause real harm to the important work that’s being done by Empire City for Westchester County and for the state.”

Ravitz acknowledges the referendum does not preclude the development of a casino in Orange County, but the legislation’s intent should. Maureen Halahan is president and CEO of the Orange County Partnership, a non-profit economic development agency.

“So it’s disappointing and surprising that right now in the eleventh hour that they’re coming out with this statement,” says Halahan. “We knew when the catchment area was going to include Orange County and when the biggest competitors were throwing their hat in the ring for applications that there was going to be some bloody noses along the way and there was going to be some mudslinging and everything else. Orange County has really stayed out of that.  We’re just keeping our nose to the grindstone working as hard as we can to try to site a gaming institution here in the county that will generate the most amount of revenue.”

Empire Resorts and its subsidiary Montreign Operating Company are behind one of the two proposed casino resorts for Sullivan County: the Montreign Resort Casino in the Town of Thompson. There is no connection with Empire City Casino in Yonkers, according to a spokeswoman. Empire City, which has harness racing and video slot machines, is owned by the Rooney family. Again, Ravitz.

“Empire City gives annually about, close to $3 million a year to the state. It employs over 1,400 people at their facility,” Ravitz says. “We can’t afford to have those 1,400 jobs be put in jeopardy. The state certainly can’t afford to have a proven revenue generator like Empire City take a step back.”

He says the racino generates some $300 million for state education. And of the more than 1,400 employees, about 450 are from the Bronx. The Bronx Chamber of Commerce and Democratic Assemblymen Mike Benedetto and Jeffrey Dinowitz from the Bronx are among those in opposition to granting a casino license in Orange. Also opposed is Democratic Conference Leader in the State Senate Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who says $19 million a year alone is allotted to schools in Yonkers.

Republican first-term Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus responds to the opposition.

“Really, it just goes back to almost like the capitalistic type of philosophy. You need to always be on your A game and always be promoting yourself and growing and changing,” Neuhaus says. “And if that racino in Yonkers is not going to survive if Orange County is going to be around, how would they survive if the Meadowlands [NJ] goes online or if the five boroughs [of New York City] gets a casino which they are in the next seven years.”

Democratic Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, who represents portions of Westchester directly to the north of Yonkers, says allowing casino development in Orange will sink any hope of revitalizing the Catskills.

“I am concerned because Yonkers is a regional economic engine,” says Abinanti. “I’m also concerned that any loss in Yonkers means a loss of education funding for Westchester County, and also just from a public policy point of view. Putting the casino in Orange County is just not consistent with the public policy of trying to assist distressed areas. That is clearly not a distressed area in the same sense that the Catskills and downtown Yonkers are.”

Again, the Orange County Partnership’s Halahan.

“When you look at the legislation it’s really about, about 70 percent of it is based on revenue generation,” Halahan says. “So I’m hoping that the [New York State Gaming] Commission really takes a long, hard look at why are we doing this. If we are really going to open up gaming for the State of New York, isn’t it so we can generate a tremendous amount of revenue.”

There are six proposals for casinos in Orange County, two in Sullivan and one in Ulster County. The other two regions being considered are the Capital Region and a portion of the Southern Tier. The New York State Gaming Facility Location Board is expected to render a decision by the end of the fall. It is believed the Capital Region will receive one license, the Southern Tier one, and the Hudson Valley/Catskills two.

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