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Questions Remain On Future Of New York's Casino Industry

Christopher Chappelear

Over the past year, the New York casino landscape went from a number of competing concepts to three projects preparing for launch. Observers are now speculating on the future of the state’s newest industry.

Lobbyists, lawyers, and casino leaders met up this week at the 15th Annual Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing, and Gaming Law, hosted by Albany Law School.

It’s been about nine months since New York’s three winners in the casino race were announced – for resorts in Schenectady, Seneca, and Sullivan counties. Companies are currently finishing up the planning steps before construction begins.

But New York has not yet provided the licenses to the selected projects.

Speaking after his presentation on a short history of the state’s casino law, former Cuomo aide and Albany Law School lawyer-in-residence Bennett Leibman said the siting process has mostly followed through as he predicted.

“In terms of how the process ended up, it really isn’t too dissimilar than I would have thought except the actual process of licensing is somewhat slower than what I would have hoped for,” said Leibman.

Gambling operators are grappling with several issues. Finger Lakes Gaming and Raceway filed a lawsuit arguing that the state casino location board hadn’t taken into account how the license awarded to the Lago casino project in Seneca County would affect existing gambling venues. The Lago project is about 25 miles from the Finger Lakes racino.

A New York Supreme Court Judge this week threw out the lawsuit while saying New York’s casino law does not require protection of racinos.

In the Capital Region, the operators of Saratoga Gaming and Raceway are moving forward with a proposed hotel expansion after losing out on full-size casino bids in the Capital Region and Hudson Valley.

And in the Southern Tier, Jeff Gural, owner of Tioga Downs, has submitted plans for an expansion that would bring in table gaming. While the casino siting board selected three winners, up to four were eligible in the first round.

Gural commented on Governor Cuomo’s push for a Southern Tier casino.

“So I think the governor is an elected official and I think he looked at a map and realized that there was no casino for hundreds of miles along the Pennsylvania border on Route 17 and to his credit basically asked them reopen it because I think no governor can make a promise and not keep it,” said Gural.

Gural is so far the only bidder for a Southern Tier casino. He says he hopes to secure a license from the state before the end of the year.

Opinions are mixed on overcrowding and competition with Indian Casinos. Jason Giles is executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association. He says his organization does not see any oversaturation or limits on how much gambling can grow in New York and beyond.

“Everyone is still getting their feet back under them economically, there’s a lot of expansion opportunity while interest rates are still low, so we think in a lot of areas, particularly in New York where we have a big population base, probably we don’t know how much more we can grow but there’s definitely room for growth,” said Giles.

Giles says the focus for tribal casinos is to maintain their customer bases through marketing and expansion.

Surrounding states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are also expanding gambling, while New Jersey and Delaware are considering bailouts for casinos that have failed.

Still, Albany-based racing and gambling lobbyist Nicholas Antenucci says he also doesn’t have an idea of how the Empire State’s casinos will compare and compete.

“I don’t think I know the answer, I don’t think anyone knows the answer, but when you look around the Northeast, see what’s going on in Atlantic City, seeing what’s going on in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, it’s going to be tough for New York to find a footprint in this business but time will tell.”

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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