Source: Buffalo News
By: Tom Precious
Michael R. Treanor, one of 35 investors hoping to bring a casino to the shuttered Nevele resort in Wawarsing, 90 minutes from George Washington Bridge, sees approval of referendum as key to rejuvenation of tourism.
Michael R. Treanor, one of 35 investors hoping to bring a casino to the shuttered Nevele resort in Wawarsing, 90 minutes from George Washington Bridge, sees approval of referendum as key to rejuvenation of tourism. Tom Precious/Buffalo News

WAWARSING – Tables were still in their places in the sprawling dining hall. Chairs were arranged in the Stardust Room nightclub. All the other trappings were in place: pool, ski mountain, tennis courts, covered ice arena.

The only thing missing on a tour last week of the Nevele was people.

The grandfather of Borscht Belt hotels in the southern Catskills, the Nevele today – with its darkened rooms, empty hallways and a decade’s worth of abandonment evident in the feel and smell of the place – has all the makings of a scene from “The Shining.”

But a group of investors believe that they can bring back to life one of the Catskills’ classic resorts, which in its heyday could attract the likes of Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Eddie Fisher and Alan King.

There’s a catch, though, for their $500 million investment: A casino must be permitted.

When voters go to the polls Tuesday, they will have the opportunity to weigh in on six statewide ballot propositions, including a land-swap deal in the Adirondacks, a financing system for municipal sewage plants and raising the retirement age for certain state judges.

But Proposal 1 – permitting up to seven commercial casinos in the state, including two likely in the Catskills – has attracted the most controversy. And the most money – at least from pro-casino forces that have raised more than $3 million in the last few weeks to promote the expansion.

For voters, it comes down to which side to believe.

Point, counterpoint

Proponents, led by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his allies from businesses, unions and casino interests, say New Yorkers are already gambling, but they do it by spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year in Atlantic City, N.J., Connecticut and other nearby casino destinations.

They say the casinos will generate jobs and several hundred million dollars a year in casino tax revenues that will go mostly to New York’s public school funding program, with some leftover money for local governments. They say the issue helped settle long-standing disputes with Indian tribes, including the Seneca Nation, in a way that preserves existing Native American regional casino-exclusivity rights.

Backers additionally contend that the enabling law accompanying the ballot question will provide $500 per slot machine annually to finance treatment programs for gambling addiction.

But opponents say that isn’t enough for the problem gamblers who would be added to the state’s population of gambling addicts. Further, they say New York officials, like those in other states where gambling has been proposed, have wildly overestimated the net benefits of more gambling. They say that factors such as social costs – ranging from more crime to increased gambling addiction – weigh heavily against any possible financial windfall for the state.

They also note that promises of “lockbox” funding for education from gambling proceeds have a way of changing in Albany, pointing to how state lottery proceeds have supplanted, not added to, general fund proceeds for public school funding.

New York, they say, is already saturated with gambling. There are nine racetrack-based casinos; those casinos can offer video lottery terminals, which look and sound like slot machines. The seven proposed casinos could offer both real slots and table games, including poker, which generally account for about a quarter of a casino’s revenues.

Beyond the track casinos, there are six Indian-owned casinos, an ever-expanding field of lottery games, charitable gambling ventures, horse race betting, and the illegal sports and Internet wagering.

Big plans for the Nevele

In adjacent Ellenville, a village of 4,000 residents, some see a casino as a last chance to revitalize the once-thriving Catskills tourism industry, which began declining decades ago as air travel expanded.

“For local people and for local government, the main issue is not whether we’re pro or con gambling. It’s that we want the Nevele to be able to reopen,” said Mayor Jeff Kaplan.

The village lost more than 2,000 jobs with the closing of two factories and the sudden shutdown of the Nevele in 2009, he said. Residents’ water bills have risen without the Nevele paying one-third of the village’s annual water revenues, and jobs are desperately needed in an area that once was home to hundreds of bungalow colonies and hotels, he added.

“This is an opportunity to take a major road coming into our village that is overgrown with a bunch of vacant buildings and making it into a beautiful spot,” Kaplan said.

Some residents don’t buy into that vision of opportunity.

“I understand he has to advocate for his village, but this is a statewide issue,” said Dave Colavito, a Catskills resident who recently debated Kaplan at a casino forum and is a member of the Buffalo-based Coalition Against Gambling in New York.

Colavito said he knows that casinos will create jobs. But he said supporters don’t want to talk about the costs – from social ones associated with more gambling addiction to tax breaks and other government subsidies the casinos will likely receive. He said developers of resorts are looking for guarantees – something other industries don’t get – that casinos be authorized if they are to invest their money in places such as the Nevele.

“The only reason we need the gambling is for the certainty of the investors,” Colavito said.

As he walked some of the 500 acres of the Nevele’s property last week, Michael R. Treanor said tourists will come again to this community located just 90 minutes from the George Washington Bridge. He is one of the 35 Nevele investors hoping a casino will be approved for the shuttered resort.

But for the investors, the equation is simple: no casino, no Nevele.

“The driver is a casino. And, fortunately or unfortunately, modern destination resorts seem to need a casino to attract those types of people,” Colavito said of what could be a resort that attracts families and bettors bused in from New York City.

Situated below the Shawangunk Ridge, the Nevele was a getaway home for generations of families, drawing heavily on a Jewish clientele from New York City since the first hotel was built in 1901. With its sense of nostalgia, a kosher kitchen for many years, kitschy décor, the Nevele wasn’t the largest of the Borscht Belt resorts, but it drew guests – including President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 – who were lured by its proximity to New York City and year-round amenities.

Today, it is one of several former resorts in Ulster and Sullivan counties where developers have floated casino-development plans.

Proposal 1 calls for up to seven casinos statewide. Under a deal that Cuomo cut with three tribes, including the Seneca Nation, no additional casinos can come to Western New York, Northern New York and a large area of Central New York. The initial four casinos could be located in only three upstate areas: Albany/Saratoga Springs, the eastern Southern Tier near Binghamton, and the Catskills, which likely would get two casinos.

No matter how voters decide Tuesday, more casinos are coming.

If the referendum fails, the governor got lawmakers to go along with a provision that permits one casino apiece – with only video lottery terminals, or VLTs – in the three casino-designated areas of upstate and another in Nassau County. On Long island, both Nassau and Suffolk counties, regardless of the vote, are also getting one VLT casino apiece.

Proposals for Adirondacks

Beyond Proposal 1, voters are being asked to consider two Adirondack Forest Preserve proposals.

Proposal 4 seeks to end a 100-year-old land dispute between the state and private parties involving more than 200 parcels of land in Long Lake; proceeds from the settlement would go to purchase more nearby public land preserves.

Proposal 5 would permit NYCO Minerals Inc. to swap land with the state so it can continue drilling in the Town of Lewis for wollastonite – a rare mineral used in paints, plastics and other products – for another 10 years on 200 acres next to a mine that it already owns.

Eight percent of the world’s wollastonite is mined there, and NYCO employs 100 people. For the drilling rights, NYCO would convey to the state at least $1 million worth of land and return the 200 acres after 10 years.

Veterans, debt, judges

Proposal 2 would grant disabled military veterans additional credits on civil service exams.

Proposal 3 permits localities to borrow beyond debt limits for another 10 years for sewer facility projects.

Proposal 6 would raise the mandatory state retirement age for judges to 80, from 70, but would do so only for the seven members of the Court of Appeals and about 350 State Supreme Court justices. It would not affect the more than 800 judges who work in Family Court, the Court of Claims and other courts.

Supreme Court justices now must retire at 70, but they can get three two-year extensions.

Supporters say the proposal recognizes that people retire later in life, while critics say it is too selective in who benefits and does not require certification, which includes an interview, to show that Court of Appeals judges remain fit to serve between the ages of 70 and 80.