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Casino competition heats up in the Southern Tier

Courtesy of Traditions
PHOTO: Proposed casino in Johnson City

Jeff Gural is the owner of Tioga Downs, where ground was recently broken on an expanded parking lot. Gural’s plan is to offer the full casino experience at his racetrack and electronic gambling site. But first he needs to win one of the new gaming licenses.

The Manhattan-based businessman says he spent $400,000 to help pass Proposition 1 in November. He was hoping it would be an easy stroll to get a casino permit.

“I’ve already invested a ton of money," he said. I took a big risk and to be honest I think we deserve the license.”

But not everyone in the region agrees. At least three other businesses have shown interest in securing the casino license.

In Broome County, the Vista Hospitality Group has proposed to build a casino in the heart of downtown Binghamton. Vista owns the downtown Holiday Inn but hasn’t specified the exact location for their casino. The Walsh family, owners of Traditions in Johnson City, has also announced plans to apply.

And there will probably only be one winner. A total of four licenses will be awarded to the upstate area. Three will go to a single applicant in each of three designated regions, including the Southern Tier. And the fourth can be placed anywhere. Most agree it will go to the Catskill region because of its proximity to New York City.

Gural thinks it would be a mistake to put a casino in Broome County, so close to his location in Tioga County.

“There are only 600,000 people that live here and that’s just not enough to have two casinos. Why would anybody think it’s a good idea to put a casino 25 miles from me?”

The Walsh family hired a local marketing firm to study the impact of a casino in Johnson City. Matt Walsh cites the private study when claiming that new casinos will actually be good for Gural’s business. The gambling legislation lowers the tax rate on existing racinos, like Tioga Downs, so they can compete.

“His tax rate will go down and the studies show that what he will net will be better then what he is actually doing right now.”

Recently another group threw its hat into the ring. Thomas Wilmot is based in Rochester and owns malls around the state.

Wilmot has proposed a $350 million casino in Seneca County. His plan is to market the casino to wine country tourists. Wilmot says the central location between Rochester and Syracuse will increase its draw.

Gural agrees that a casino built 70 miles north of Tioga Downs wouldn’t draw much from the Southern Tier. But Gural says it could hurt gaming sites already in business in the Finger Lakes. There’s already the Turning Stone Resort in Verona and the Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack in Farmington nearby.

“All his customers would come from existing facilities, so what’s the point?" he asks. "I mean, we are just moving people around.”

The New York State Gaming Commission will select a five-member board to award the licenses.

Gural thinks the Southern Tier could use the economic jump-start of a casino more then the Finger Lakes.

“I would hope that they recognize that between Binghamton, Tioga, Elmira, Cortland, that there is a real need for economic development and not ignore that fact,” he said.

The state has said no casino will be built without local support, but what qualifies as local support isn’t entirely clear at this point. The license review board will make that decision.

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