Put the “Million Dollar Jackpot” billboard in your rearview mirror. Leave Atlantic City behind and head to its suburbs.
Look out your window. A few one-story houses the color of dirty snow sit near the old Sunnyside motel and its yellow sign for free HBO.
That scene is a remnant of the days before casinos.
Keep driving along new blacktopped roads. The colors turn to the tans and teals of new mall stores like Tweeters and Borders books. Neat homes the shade of sparkling sand sit in leafy developments with names like Fischer Woods.
This is the clout of casinos.
“Ninety percent of this wasn’t here before them,” says Mike Pollack, publisher of the bible of the Atlantic City casino industry, Michael Pollack’s Gaming Observer. He figures two-thirds of the households around Atlantic City have a casino connection – through family members who work at them or provide services like dry cleaning or daycare for the 47,000 casino employees.
That clout is also changing southeastern Connecticut, where Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods were built in the ’90s.
Five new hotels are rising around Mohegan Sun. Traffic is starting to clog lazy country roads – just like the Atlantic City area, where a 15-mile commute from the suburbs now takes a stop-and-start 29 minutes instead of the pre-casino breeze of 22. The number of cars has nearly tripled around Foxwoods since the days before casinos.
This is what could happen to us when three casinos rise in the Catskills, with at least two in Sullivan County and perhaps one in Ulster.
Fifteen thousand new workers will live in new homes. They’ll shop in new stores. They’ll drive on new – and old – roads. Their kids will learn in new classrooms.
- In Sullivan County.
- In Orange County.
- In southern Ulster County.
Deal in the 100,000 gamblers per day who’ll jam roads like Route 17 and Interstate 84 driving to those casinos.
“It will impact you everywhere,” says James Hurley, the chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
You bet, says Mike DiTullo, who thinks regionally as the president and CEO of the Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress.
“So you have to figure out how it will impact and then deal with it,” he says.
Or, as Martin Handler, the district superintendent of Sullivan County BOCES, says:
“We can’t be sitting on our hands.”
Many folks in the mid-Hudson/Catskill region know about the impact of these casinos. They’re even thinking about how to win some of those billions of tourist dollars.
But their hands are tied.
While Sullivan could get as much as $45 million per year in compensation from the three tax-free casinos, and Ulster could get its millions if it lands a casino, Orange won’t get a dime.
Bad news for the schools and roads of Orange County.
“We have virtually no excess capacity, or textbooks, buses or computers,” says Jeff Smith, chief operating officer for Orange County schools. It’s the same thing in Sullivan and Ulster.
Building projects take about three years from concept to completion. The state won’t look at a proposal unless a district shows a current need.
So schools could overflow if enrollment soars. When they expand, they might have to raise taxes.
Then there’s the impact of 15,000 new workers and 100,000 visitors on our roads. In Atlantic City and Connecticut, dozens of buses drive casino workers to their jobs every day and night from homes more than 30 miles away – the distance from Monticello to Chester.
Even though Route 17 will be upgraded to Interstate 86, it stays four lanes. With thousands of extra cars and buses crowding it every day, that could spell trouble. It’s already jammed on Sunday nights and Friday evenings.
“It could add quite a bit of congestion,” says state police Maj. Al Martin, the commander of Troop F, patrols Route 17. And Pollution.
That’s why DiTullo urges local governments to make sure casino developers include the regional impacts on roads and airports in their environmental impact statements.
And, he adds, the three counties should market themselves as a tourist region, not just a casino destination.
“The trick is to get them coming and going because once they’re at the casinos, they’re staying,” says director of Orange Tourism, Susan Cayea, who adds that it’s “much too early” to develop a selling strategy for visitors to the casinos that could break ground in 2002 and open in 2004.
Still, she hopes to put signs on Interstate 86 that point out tourist spots like West Point and Woodbury Common.
Problem is, the casinos want to snare every tourist dollar.
Just check out what’s happening in Connecticut.
Foxwoods is building two golf courses and a B.B. King night club. This, along with 25 restaurants, a concert hall, convention center, movie theater, a boxing arena, and more than 1,000 hotel rooms.
Mohegan Sun just added some 50 shops and restaurants to go along with an arena that presents concerts by everyone from Tony Bennett to Bob Dylan, as well as basketball games with stars like Michael Jordan. It’s opening a 1,200-room hotel this spring.
“You need to attract people who’ve never been to a casino, so you make it an entertainment destination,” explains Bob DeSalvio, the executive vice president of marketing for Foxwoods, who spent his summers at his family’s place near Roscoe.
That will happen here.
The St. Regis Mohawk/Park Place Entertainment casino at Kutsher’s Sports Academy will build a golf course, a theater, a 750-room hotel, and seven restaurants. It’s even talking to local art dealers about displaying art.
And the developers who built Mohegan Sun plan to build a casino just like it, just off Route 17, in Bridgeville, near Monticello.
So how will Orange and Ulster counties cope with the casinos that will rise in the Catskills?
Listen to the man who knows what happened to the suburbs of Atlantic City, Mike Pollack.
“Set realistic goals and start planning to meet them. And do it now.”