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Upstate performance venues rally around casino proposal

New York voters Tuesday will determine whether or not to allow the state can approve developer bids to build up to seven new resort-style casinos around the state, under ballot Proposal One.

While many have argued over the language of the amendment and disputed claims of the potential benefits, one group has focused on concerns over the impact that the casinos would have on regional performance venues.

Chris Silva’s been running the historic Bardavon Theatre and Kingston’s Ulster Performing Arts Center for nearly 20 years. They’re both active performance venues and hold non-profit community outreach events like free concerts by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic.

“We bring 100,000 people into our communities every year and many of those people make a night of it in Poughkeepsie or Kingston," he says. "Whenever we have a full house, every restaurant in town is full."

"So that’s what we bring, we bring great nights of entertainment to the broader downtown business community.”

Silva says the money the centers earn from booking marquee acts supports their engagement with the surrounding community.

Silva’s part of The Upstate Coalition of Theaters for a Fair Game, a group of 12 entertainment venues from around upstate put together by Phillip Morris, CEO of Proctors theater complex in Schenectady.

"They get more for playing casinos"

The coalition wants to make sure that new casinos can’t outbid local venues for acts and make it difficult for them to book high profile performances.

“The business model has nothing to do with what we are, what performing arts centers are. They all have thousand to 2,000 seat theaters that they build in their facilities to draw in gamblers to see Smokey Robinson or Gladys Knight or Gregg Allman or Chris Cornell or Elvis Costello certainly," Silva says. "They all play casinos. They all get more money for playing casinos.”

But, Michael Treanor, CEO of Nevele Investors argues having a casino nearby would be a good thing for local venues.

“I think we could be helpful to some of them because we expect to draw most of our visitors to the New York Metropolitan Area and when those people come up here and they get their first look at the area, I mean it’s just stunning,” he argues.

Ellenville’s Nevele Grand Hotel has been sitting dark and empty since the last guest checked out in 2009. The hotel was once part of the Catskill Region’s Borscht Belt heyday attracting guests like President Lyndon Johnson and acts like the Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. to Ulster County.

Treanor’s investment group hopes to redevelop the property into a family-style resort and casino to the tune of $450 million, highlighting the hotel’s famous Stardust Room.

“I have no desire to replace some of the existing venues, I mean the Nevele can seat, there is a performing room that is in existence, right now it’s in existence and it seats 2,000 people," Treanor says. "So whether we scale that down or leave it at that size, I can’t tell you. We’re working on the plans right now.”

Treanor says his plan includes working with local chambers of commerce to use as many local resources as possible. He also says renovating the casino would create a thousand construction jobs for three years and 1,500 permanent full-time jobs in an area that struggles with an unemployment rate that hovers around 10 percent.

“The people in Ellenville, they’re desperate. This is their one last hope," he says. "I mean, there really isn’t anything else on the horizon, they desperately want this. And all it is is bringing back a fabulous resort that once existed.”

Will the people come?

On a cold Sunday evening, fans of country music legend Merle Haggard line up on Broadway outside the Ulster Performing Arts Center in downtown Kingston, N.Y.

Many of them say they’d rather see performing acts in a smaller venue like UPAC.

“I would rather see it at a smaller venue like this," says show-goer Samantha from Red Hook, N.Y.

"I just feel like it’s more personal, it’s nice and close to home," says Brenda waiting nearby.

"Better vibe," adds a fan named Ron.

It seems Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York State Gaming Commissioner Robert Williams have heard some of the concerns of The Upstate Theatre Coalition for a Fair Game. Some non-binding language has been added to the draft casino act saying that that casinos would need to establish quote a ‘fair and reasonable’ partnership with local venues. Fair Game is still pushing for more protections in the bill including limiting new casino venues to no more than 900 seats.

But, Silva from Bardavon and UPAC wants to make clear he’s not against the casino amendment and understands the desire for them.

“I understand, people’s desires and for all these years, 'gimmie something up here to help stimulate this economy,'” he says with a sigh.

He and other venue directors just want to make sure they get a fair shake should New York start constructing new entertainment and resort casinos should Proposal One pass.

WMHT/Capital Region Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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