Gambling on a new resort in Catskills - Tuesday 1st of July 2008

As work crews smash apart the Concord Hotel — the biggest of the old, empty Borscht Belt resorts — developer Louis Cappelli surveys the rubble and sees a new shot at glory for the Catskills.

Over the rumble of demolition, Cappelli talks about a $1 billion resort with gambling, golf, shopping, a spa, a water park and horse racing. He sees Vegas, the Hamptons without the traffic, Disney World of the north — something that will finally lift this old tourist haven northwest of New York City from its long torpor.

"I believe that single-handedly this project could evolve into one of the great revitalization opportunities that the state has ever experienced in its history," he said.

People here began dreaming about casinos in the Catskills soon after station wagons full of families stopped coming decades ago. But they could never land one.

So Cappelli, a big-thinking developer, came up with Plan B: Move a nearby harness track and its video lottery terminals to the site of a mega-resort. No craps. No cards. The gambling, he said, will help attract tourists from the metropolitan area and revive the Catskills.

Local officials — used to gambling deals that never come through — have embraced the deal forwarded by Cappelli and track owner Empire Resorts.

The Concord, with 1,200 rooms, was a Catskills mainstay in the days when the area was packed with summer tourists, many Jewish families up from New York City.

Tourism declined by the 70s with the rise of cheap air fares and air conditioning. Locals looked to casinos to fill the void, but were unable to amend the state constitution to legalize them. In more recent years, developers teamed up with faraway Indian tribes in hopes of building casinos that could compete with the tourist magnets in neighboring Connecticut and Atlantic City, N.J.

But the casino pursuit played out like a long game of three-card monte: The winning card never came up. The death blow to local Indian casinos came this year when federal officials rejected two proposals here because they would be hundreds of miles away from tribal lands.

The new Catskills gambling plan involves Monticello Raceway, a shopworn harness track three miles down the road from the Concord. The raceway — once a would-be casino site — is among the eight New York harness tracks given permission several years ago to install video lottery terminals. The flashy machines look and act like video slot machines. But payouts are controlled centrally by New Yorks lottery, making them legal video lottery terminals, or VLTs.

The machines were promoted by state lawmakers as a way to generate additional education funding. Results have been uneven.

Empires Charles Degliomini, walking the floor one morning amid a smattering of white-haired VLT players, said Monticellos VLT revenue is declining.

Cappelli and Degliomini believe they could turn it around by placing VLTs in the glitzy destination resort, where gambling would be one form of entertainment among many. Cappelli imagines Mom and Dad leaving the kids with a nanny after a day of family fun to hit the VLTs.

Cappelli now faces the challenge of establishing a world-class resort in an uneasy time when many Americans are cutting back on travel. No problem, said state Sen. John Bonacic. High gas prices could end up helping the resort attract more of the roughly 10 million people living in the nearby New York City metropolitan area, he said.

"Its cheaper to get here," Bonacic said. "One gas tank for 10 million people."

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