Former Supervisor, Area Residents Talk About Sullivan Casino
It was just over six months ago that the New York State Gaming Facility Location Board announced that it was recommending three casino licenses. One was for the mid-Hudson Valley/Catskills region, in Sullivan County. WAMC’s Allison Dunne spent a winter's day in the area of Sullivan where the resort casino is slated to be built and encountered a lot of cautious optimism. Now that summer is nearly here, early visions of the region’s future are coming into focus.
The board selected Empire Resorts’ proposed Montreign Resort Casino in the Town of Thompson in Sullivan County, for part of the old Concord site. Tony Cellini became Thompson supervisor in 1993 and remained in the position for 20 years, during which he pushed mightily for a casino. He was hoping one would be approved under his watch. Cellini says that it happened just one year after he retired is still gratifying.
"I was elated, knowing that I had a small part in this," says Cellini.
"What was your part?" asks Dunne.
"My part was being the quarterback of this process of getting the gaming to the point where it was approved."
Cellini is now security supervisor for Monticello Motor Club. It’s an outfit he worked to bring to the county and one that has an agreement with Montreign to offer high-performance racing. He says the casino is not the only answer to an economically disadvantaged region.
"I certainly don't believe it's a panacea. I think it’s a step in the right direction. It's a piece of the, a part of the puzzle to bring our economy back to what it used to be in the heyday of the mountains."
He says other puzzle pieces include job creation and lowering taxes. I sat with Cellini in one of the area's mainstays -- the Miss Monticello Diner.
"I can remember this diner when behind these counters there were short order men cooking as you sat and watched them. They yelled the orders out. And I think you'll see that come back," Cellini says. "And I think we have to keep in mind that it's going to be the employee that we should be catering to, not the visitor that's coming. We have to be polite to our visitor and welcome them, but I think our businesses should gear more towards the 2,000 employees that will be working at this casino."
Sharon Green passed by our booth, greeting Cellini, who knows pretty much all the locals. Green was asked about the casino decision for Sullivan.
"Oh, I think it's fabulous," says Green. "It's the best thing that's happened up here in a very long time."
Green, who was born and raised in Sullivan County, says state support follows immense local support.
"The local people wanted it a very long time," says Green.
"Can you believe it?" Dunne asks.
"No, I can't. I can't wait to see it," Green says. "I hope I'm one of the first people to walk through the doors."
Charlie Degliomini is executive vice president for Empire Resorts.
"What's different for me personally is the fact that I have been just through every iteration of casino dreams that has ever been brought up to the Catskills," Degliomini says. "This time it's for real."
Degliomini took me on a driving tour of the site, buried in snow at the time.
"So now this is where the water park is going to be. These water parks are amazing. People drive, on average, of six to seven hours just to come and visit a water park," says Degliomini. "So it's going to be an indoor water park experience. It's going to have actually a little convention center in it, too, that's going to be able to attract conventions and trade shows and the like, and that's going right down over here."
"Look at all the old Concord signs," Dunne comments.
"Yeah, yeah," says Degliomini.
He touts other amenities, including a golf course and celebrity chef restaurant. Montreign secured the bid with proposed development Adelaar. Degliomini refers to a REIT, or real-estate investment trust.
"So this is about 1,700 acres," says Degliomini.
"Explain to me this whole Adelaar thing. I don't understand this," says Dunne.
"Yeah, there's a lot of brand confusion. Our casino hotel is called the Montreign Resort Casino," Degliomini says. "Our partners, EPR Properties, which is a multi-billion-dollar REIT out of Kansas City that invested in this property here, they have come up with their own brand for the property that's not the casino hotel and they call it Adelaar. And Adelaar is the Dutch word for eagle."
Les Kristt says his corporation, Kristt Kelly Office Systems in Monticello, conducted business with many of the hotels from the Borscht Belt era, and the Concord was his biggest client. He has high hopes for a casino's impact.
"Most of us knew that the casino itself is not the live all end all, that this is not going to be the answer to all our economic problems," says Kristt. "But we felt that the casino would be a wonderful starting point. If we knew the casino was going to open up, first of all, just our attitudes, a lot sunnier, but we knew the auxiliary businesses would also follow them here and so forth."
Today, he counts Monticello Casino & Raceway as a client. Empire Resorts owns the Monticello Casino & Raceway, sometimes referred to as a racino, a few miles from the proposed Montreign casino site. Again, Degliomini.
"We're committed to keeping the racing operation going. We did not want to lose all the jobs that are associated with racing," says Degliomini. "We also think the existing Monticello Casino & Raceway will be here, there's a little over 1,000 gaming machines here. We assume that once the New York State Gaming Commission gives us permission, we will shrink it to probably around the 500 range, make it a smaller facility, but add amenities, add a sports bar, some other things that will make it an interesting experience. And then it becomes what we call in the gaming business a local's place."
Kristt and Cellini predict a need for other businesses like lodging and higher-end restaurants. And Kristt expects housing will multiply.
"The biggest thing that we have to offer the public out there is our land right now. The prices are very inexpensive compared to many places. So again, the realtors, the abstract companies and all that will start to prosper to begin with," Kristt says. "I think there's going to be... We have no clothing stores really in Sullivan County, we really don't. We don't have any clothing stores. I think basic things like that will start to pop up, specialty clothing shops, women's shops, children's clothes and so forth. The only place you can even think of buying that is someplace like Walmart, but many people just want to go at least a half-a-step above Walmart."
Despite frigid temps and snow everywhere, Liberty resident Carol Benton ventured out for dinner at another popular spot in Monticello -- the Blue Horizon Diner.
"I grew up five miles from Grossinger's and I knew this area when it had its heyday," says Benton. "Now it's been completely dead and the economy sucks, to put it mildly."
She hopes the casino will help.
"I see it as a necessary evil, almost, to get this county going," says Benton.
She admits she would have been upset if a Sullivan County project did not win a casino bid. Benton says her property value has decreased over the years and wants the casino resort's presence to drive it higher.
"Unless a ton of people come up from Westchester and New York City, the average person here, living off of welfare to begin with, they're not going to go to the casino," Benton says. "So I'm in favor of it, but if Atlantic City went down the tubes..."
Then, says Benton, she has her doubts about the casino's viability. Degliomini says the intent is to draw people not only from New York, but surrounding states, and not only for the casino.
"The reason why we won is we built a better mousetrap," says Degliomini. "When I talk about our project I just don't talk about how big our casino neon sign's going to be, I speak about the fact that we have a 350-room indoor water park with a hotel coming. We have an entertainment village that's going to have restaurants and eight-screen movie theater and other amenities and attractions that are going to draw families from the tri-state area to Sullivan County."
Lifelong area resident Bernard Cohen, who was a printer for Grossinger's in the Catskills' heyday, and had an advertising agency, says he also is concerned about the contracting Atlantic City casino scene. He says the Thompson casino could be a mixed blessing.
"A casino would certainly be a shot in the arm, but how long it will last, I'm not sure."
His wife, Lorraine Cohen, voiced ambivalence, but says she hopes the casino resort improves the area.
"Certainly for the area it would be a benefit. It would give employment. It would then bring the area back into what it, maybe not what it had once been, but at least provide material for families. We might get a middle class back again," says Lorraine Cohen. "It would help in every single way. It can't get worse."
Chrystal Spencer lives in Loch Sheldrake and is a server at the Blue Horizon diner.
"Hopefully we’ll make more money," says Spencer. "Hopefully more people will be coming in, construction workers and hopefully it'll just boost the economy some."
Monticello resident Gary Zigler also stopped by the diner.
"I'll believe it when I see it," says Zigler.
He says with so many casino hopes dashed over the years, he cannot help but think there will be some obstacle with Montreign.
"Just on all the letdowns over the years, I'm just a doubting Thomas, so to speak."
However, he supports the casino and wants it to help the local tax base.
"Oh, sure, sure, anything to help the area. I've been here since Monticello was one helluva place to live, with things to do, and every store on Broadway was open Friday and Saturday night all night sometimes," Zigler says. "And every space you see along Broadway that's an open space was a store there that's burnt down for one reason or another. So I know what it was."
Again, Empire Resorts' Degliomini.
"We're making sure that everything we do is looked at through a prism of first and foremost how can it help this area, how can it help Sullivan County and, broadly speaking, how could it help the Hudson Valley region," Degliomini says.
Cellini says since the siting board's announcement in December, there is a marked change among residents.
"The morale in the community, the morale in the area. People are smiling for once and they haven't done that in a long time," Cellini says. "And every time a casino was mentioned, they just shrugged their heads and said, oh, here we go again. But it's here now. The only thing we have to do now is put the shovel in the ground and watch the structure go up."
And secure the actual license. A spokesman for the New York State Gaming Commission says the intense background investigations are in full swing as of late May and licenses are expected to be awarded some time this year, but he could not be more specific. The idea of casinos as economic development tools came with a timeframe -- that casinos would be up and running two years from the issuance of licenses, not when the siting board issued its recommendations in December 2014. For Montreign, some shovels have been in the ground, clearing land and making a dent in the $70 million infrastructure project for the casino resort, which carries an estimated $1.1 billion construction price tag.
Cellini thinks there would have been an exodus of residents from Sullivan if the county were not recommended for a casino license.
"We'll never bring it back to what it was in the '50s and '60s," says Cellini. "We were once noted as hospitality capital of the Northeast, I think we'll regain some of that once again."
Degliomini says the resort casino will usher in a new era for the Catskills and Hudson Valley region with a nod to nostalgia.
"We may be having a little kind of focal, visual touch points, maybe some walls of memorabilia and things like that," Degliomini says. "But, frankly, we did an entire study of the brand and we've made a conscious decision to king of evolve past the old Borscht Belt days. We want this to be a younger, hipper, kind of more of a Vegas-style experience for people to come. We don't want necessarily to be too evocative of the old Catskill days. Now, certainly it's a part of our history, it's going to be a touch point, but not a main focal point."
Empire Resorts edged out the other remaining proposed casino in Sullivan County -- Mohegan Sun at the Concord -- and the Nevele Resort, Casino & Spa in Ulster County. The two other recommended licenses in the state are for Rivers Casino in Schenectady and Lago Resort & Casino, in the Finger Lakes town of Tyre. After a letter from Governor Andrew Cuomo, the Gaming Commission is revisiting the potential of a casino for what advocates are calling the “true Southern Tier.”