From Blintz to Blackjack: Old Borscht Belt sees revival hopes in resort casino

Residents of this faded corner of the New York's Catskills Mountains fist-pumped, cheered and hugged as they closed in on landing a casino. Finally.

The recommendation to license a casino in the heart of the once-bustling "Borscht Belt" resort region will test the premise that blackjack and craps can breathe new life in an old summer haven known in its heyday for families, mostly Jewish, arriving packed in station wagons to enjoy fast-talking comedians and other entertainment, a la "Dirty Dancing." New York's Gaming Facility Location Board on Wednesday chose a site here in Sullivan County as well ones in Schenectady and Seneca counties.

Each of the three upstate New York areas was chosen in part because they are economically distressed. But the win was especially sweet in this lake-rich region northwest of New York City, where big hotels and bungalows fell into decline decades ago.

"This means rebirth. This means new life," said Randy Resnick. "Basically, it's our shot. This is our time."

Resnick, a high-profile local casino advocate, invited dozens to watch the board's decision on a large-screen TV at his Bernie's Holiday Restaurant in Thompson. They gave a reserved cheer at the news that no competing casino licenses would be issued in neighboring Orange County, which is closer to New York City, and let loose when the board said they would choose the Montreign Resort Casino to be built in Thompson on the grounds of the old Concord hotel.

"I've been waiting to hear those words for a long, long time," said Steve Levine, a 60-year-old resident who remembers the glory days.

The $630 million project will come with an 18-story hotel, meeting spaces and an indoor waterpark. Its developer, Empire Resorts, operates through a subsidiary, the nearby Monticello Casino & Raceway.

Also chosen Wednesday:

— The Rivers Casino & Resort at Mohawk Harbor in the city of Schenectady will be part of a larger redevelopment effort at a formerly blighted riverfront site. The $300 million development will include a hotel, a high-end steakhouse and more than 1,100 slot machines.

— Lago Resort & Casino, a $425 million project in the Finger Lakes town of Tyre in Seneca County, will include 2,000 slot machines. It was the largest contender in the Finger Lakes-Southern Tier region.

Board Chairman Kevin Law noted that the Orange County projects faced environmental and financial uncertainties and would have taken revenue from other gambling facilities.

"We did take a look at what was happening in the entire industry," he said. "At the end of the day we had to do what made financial sense."

Casinos are established in neighboring Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and two more have been approved in Massachusetts, along with a slots parlor. With so much regional competition, some fear the Catskills struck a jackpot with a lot of coins scooped out already.

Keith Foley, an analyst and senior vice president for Moody's Investors Service, said even though the Monticello area has a history in tourism, market saturation is a concern now.

"Are all of the sudden people going to just say, 'Oh wow, we can go to Monticello!'? I don't know," he said. "I wouldn't suggest it's not going to be successful to some degree, but it's definitely not as certain as it was in the old days when you built a casino and people came. "

The Catskills casino push began decades ago after the old Borscht Belt crowds began heading to warmer vacation spots like Florida. Over decades, the big old hotels were shuttered and weeds grew wild in the bungalow colonies.

Locals looking to usher in Las Vegas-style luster initially failed to get a casino amendment to the state constitution through the Legislature. Later, plans to land an Indian casino repeatedly ran aground. The breakthrough came only a year ago when New York voters approved a casino expansion measure pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, leading to Wednesday's board decisions.

Phil Brown, who worked in the old hotels growing up and founded the Catskills Institute, said a casino could help businesses in the area, but it would never replicate the unique era when the main streets bustled after midnight and the largely rural area was jam packed with places to stay.

At the restaurant on Wednesday, revelers agreed. But they said one casino was better than no casino.

"Listen, we used to have hundreds of hotels and bungalow colonies," Levine said. "We won't have the same thing, but it's a piece of the puzzle."

The three selected projects are projected to support more than 3,200 full-time jobs and generate $265 million in tax revenues, along with $136 million in licensing fees. Cuomo said the casinos will act as a "magnet" to lure New York City residents to upstate destinations and reduce the amount of money New York gamblers spend in other states.

"It's going to be huge," said Pamela Pesante, a real estate agent who celebrated at the restaurant. "Jobs! People! Homes can get sold! It's exactly what we need to boost our economy and our spirits."


Associated Press writer David Klepper in Albany contributed to this report.