Fewer than 4? Unsettled gambling market has some speculating New York could go slow on casinos

What a difference a year makes.

After New York voters approved four upstate casinos last November, four Atlantic City casinos have closed, gambling profits plunged from Connecticut to Mississippi, and new casinos opened or were greenlighted in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

That increasingly unsettled, crowded market has casino developers and gambling opponents alike speculating that state regulators may award three licenses instead of the four authorized in the 2013 referendum.

"Gaming revenues are going to Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey," said Jeffrey Hyman of the proposed Howe Caverns Resort and Casino, west of Albany. "They could award fewer than four. They're going to decide, and they're going to decide soon."

Gambling opponents said the increased competition — blamed for casino closings in Atlantic City and Biloxi, Mississippi — shows why New York state should take its gambling expansion cautiously.

"With all the failures around the country, we don't think New York state should be in the business of promoting this as economic development," said Cara Benson, member of a group fighting plans for a casino in East Greenbush near Albany. "Just because you can award four doesn't mean you should."

The state board reviewing casino pitches is expected to make its decisions later this month, with 16 proposals vying for licenses to be split among three areas: the Capital Region, the Finger Lakes/Southern Tier and the Catskills/Hudson Valley.

Board members won't say which way they're leaning, or how many licenses they plan to recommend.

Nowhere in New York is the competition for a license as fierce as the Catskills/Hudson Valley region, where nine projects have been proposed for Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties.

The region was seen as the most likely to receive two licenses, and the possibility that one could be withheld worries some local officials.

The casinos were intended to bring jobs and tourism to economically struggling areas of the state. The three regions were picked to spread out the benefits — and to avoid competition with existing tribal casinos.

Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro wants to see two casinos in the region: a large destination resort complex in the Catskills and a smaller facility in Orange County.

"You're seeing casinos fail in areas where they're saturated," he said. "We think this region can support two."

Gamblers are increasingly choosing smaller casinos closer to home, and the reshuffling of the market is causing chaos for the industry. Atlantic City lost four of its 12 casinos this year, and behemoths like Connecticut's Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods have seen slumps — even as other states have gotten into the market.

Several developers have warned that a casino in Orange County, with its proximity to New York City, would make it almost impossible for a casino to work in Ulster or Sullivan.

Two groups looking to open casinos in Sullivan cited potential competition in Orange when they dropped out of the running, and the backers of the proposed Nevele Resort, Casino and Spa have said they won't be able to move forward if an Orange County project is also selected.

Mitchell Grossinger Etess, CEO of the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, agrees, though he said two casinos in Sullivan County could co-exist — and even benefit each other by creating a synergy that attracts tourists. He said he believes four upstate casinos can succeed.

"The way they've done it — spreading the licenses out around the state — can work," he said.

With millions of dollars riding on the outcome, developers said they're focusing on doing what they can to secure a license and leaving the difficult decision to the regulators.

"We're not the facility location board. The only thing we can do is put our project in the best light and present it as best we can," said Charles Degliomini, spokesman for the proposed Montreign Resort Casino in Sullivan County. "Whether they put two in our region is out of our hands."