Catskill Casinos: An Issue Left in Limbo by Discord and Indecision

Published: August 29, 2005 NY Times

THOMPSON, N.Y. - In recent months, residents and business owners who for years have longed for casinos have felt like gamblers before a giant roulette wheel. Would there be three Catskill casinos, which lawmakers authorized four years ago? Or the five that Gov. George E. Pataki was pushing last winter? Or just one, part of a scaled-back plan he supported in June?
Through the late spring and early summer, the wheel seemed to spin and spin. But with court rulings clouding the Indian land claim settlements, and with lawmakers disagreeing, the legislative session closed with the ball on zero.
For opponents of gambling in the Catskills, the derailing of the quest for casinos - at least for now - was a lucky break. But for many who view gambling as the last, best chance to restore this once-thriving resort region to prosperity, the sudden lack of progress was a bitter blow.
"You've been dangling this carrot in front of the residents of this county long enough," said Anthony P. Cellini, the supervisor of the Town of Thompson, where four of the five casinos would have been built. "Just do something. Make a decision. We sit here four years later and we still have no casino."
Others, who have followed each fit and start in the local newspaper, seem to have stopped caring about the outcome, almost as a hedge against further disappointment. "It's never going to happen; maybe after 100 years," said Jimmy Kokkosis, the manager of the Blue Horizon Diner, whose business fell off sharply after the closing of the legendary Concord Hotel near here in 1998. "I have no hope now."
This spring, more than at any time in the two decades that some have lobbied for a casino industry, local officials, developers and small-business owners thought they had five casinos lined up. While even some casino backers thought that that number was high, the County Legislature in February, after a contentious public hearing, signed off on five, an approval that state lawmakers and the governor's office had sought to move the plan forward.
The prospect of casinos in the Catskills is certainly not dead. Legislators from both parties have said that they could take up the issue again.
But the Pataki administration, in withdrawing legislation in April that would have allowed five Indian-run casinos as a way of settling age-old land claims, cited a Supreme Court ruling against the New York Oneidas. State lawyers said that the ruling muddied the legal waters and cast doubt on four of five settlements that the state had spent years negotiating.
A subsequent federal ruling from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, relating to the Cayuga land claim, found that the tribes did not have a claim because they filed their suit too late - 200 years after the loss of their land. If the decision stands, it would likely affect all the tribes' claims.
Still, Mr. Pataki, a Republican who has since announced that he will not seek a fourth term in 2006, forged ahead with the St. Regis Mohawks' plan to open a casino at Kutsher's Sports Academy as part of a settlement of a land claim brought by the Akwesasne. That proposal was not affected by the court decision, state lawyers said.
But while the Democratic-controlled Assembly also supported a single casino by the St. Regis Mohawks, the Republican-controlled Senate insisted on three, despite the court rulings. As a result, no casinos were approved. Some lawyers representing the tribes argue that the governor has leaned too heavily on the rulings, which they do not believe necessarily undermine the other land claim settlements.
As disappointment turned to anger after the session ended, some accused the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, of refusing to allow only one casino because his son, Kenneth, was a consultant for the Wisconsin Oneidas, one of the two tribes that were cut from the Assembly's and governor's proposal.
"That's not correct at all," said Mark Hansen, a spokesman for Senator Bruno. "His position all along has been economic development, job creation, keeping people within the state where money can be used for state and local education. From his perspective, having three casinos creates more jobs and more economic development than having one."

For environmental advocates and the growing numbers of opponents, the stalling of the casino movement was cause for rejoicing. In the western part of Sullivan County, where opposition appears to be the strongest, some shop owners are doubtful that there would be spillover business from people making the trip to gamble.
"I think I would lose customers," said Roberta Handler, the owner of Good Earth, a health food store in Jeffersonville, who is passionately against gambling here. "The casinos have their own hotels, restaurants and golf courses. I don't think people who come here to gamble in multitudes are coming to enjoy our natural beauty."
Bea Lazaroff, a retired typist who lives in Woodbourne and has enjoyed the occasional visit to Las Vegas, said she was relieved that the casino plan seemed to be on hold for now. Mrs. Lazaroff, 79, said she dreaded the thought of the traffic tie-ups that would result from the introduction of casinos.
"I hope it keeps stringing along until I'm gone," she said.
But the impasse has meant frustration for the town officials who have been waiting for a huge new source of revenue, as well as the real estate developers who have already bought large tracts of land and the Indian tribe members who want a piece of the action.
In his office here, Mr. Cellini has an arcade-style slot machine that takes tokens and plays an insistent minimalist soundtrack reminiscent of Philip Glass. Illustrating just how long some have been waiting for gambling here is a bumper sticker from the 1970's perched on top of the machine, reading: "Casinos Mean Jobs."
Once home to hundreds of bustling hotels that catered to a predominantly Jewish clientele, Sullivan County has enjoyed something of an economic renaissance even without casinos. In the past few years, people from Manhattan and elsewhere have streamed in to snatch up relatively affordable weekend homes, which are nestled in and among the many bungalow colonies that still exist.
The county's unemployment rate for July was only 1.7 percent. But the winter is another story. "It's dead," said Dimitris Vernezos, the general manager of the Blue Horizon Diner, who has lived in the county for 16 years. "You try to make as much money as you can in the summer so you can make it through the winter. A lot of businesses do not survive. They open and close and open and close."
Mr. Cellini said that the longer the casino plan remained bogged down in Albany, the more chance the opponents would have to sharpen their message. "It's discouraging," he said. "The anticasino group just keeps building momentum. We were once the hospitality capital of the Northeast. Why can't we have three more resort destinations?"