Gural-Owned NY Track Tapped for Casino

Tioga Downs has VLTs but would be able to add real slots, table games.

A New York State panel has tapped a fourth location for a full-blown casino as the state marches closer to a final set of approvals to join other Northeast states with gambling halls that for years in New York had been the exclusive domain of Indian tribes.

Tioga Downs, a harness racetrack west of Binghamton in the economically battered Southern Teir region of the state, on Oct. 14 won in what amounted to a do-over bid to locate a full casino and related entertainment and hotel space on the grounds of a track that first began as a Quarter Horse facility in the 1970s. It reopened for harness racing after getting the green light to install video lottery terminals.

The selection by the three-person Gaming Facility Location Board was a long path for Jeff Gural, the track's owner who also runs Meadowlands in New Jersey and Vernon Downs, a harness track with VLTs located in central New York. Gural, a Manhattan real estate developer, argued for years that existing racetrack casinos with VLTs are ideal sites to locate the larger commercial casinos with additional gambling opportunities.

Of the four tentatively approved commercial casinos in New York, Gural's is the only one of nine racetrack casinos in the state that will be going from VLTs to full casinos with real slot machines and table games. The casino proposed by Gural, as well as three previously recommended casinos elsewhere in the state, still need to get license approval from the New York State Gaming Commission before construction at the sites can begin. Officials have said they expect licenses could be awarded before the end of the year.

In December 2014 Gural's bid was rejected by the same selection panel, which reports its recommendations to the NYSGC. Gural was publicly furious at the time with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who he has politically supported; Gural has also flirted with the future possibility of a casino at Meadowlands.

Though Gural said his original plan was right for the somewhat remote location, officials last December said they rejected Gural's first submission because, essentially, it was too small in scope, amounted to a retrofit of the existing facility, and was not, as Cuomo has said he wants, a true destination-style casino resort.

Tioga Downs and a dozen other casino bids were rejected nearly a year ago when the casino siting panel tapped three initial locations for casinos. Political and business leaders in Binghamton area protested, and noted how Cuomo had all but promised that their region would get a casino. Cuomo then asked the NYSGC, an agency his administration controls, to re-look at the matter, and a new bid was released with an eye on the Greater Binghamton area.

The initial round of casino developments are restricted to three large geographic areas of the state, and the Binghamton area was thrown into an oddly shaped zone that stretches from a wide area north of the Pennsylvania border to a narrow slice of real estate heading to the shores of Lake Ontario. The gaming selection panel last year tapped that narrow area, in between Syracuse and Rochester, for one of three casinos when it initially rejected plans for casino development in the Binghamton area. The two others casino sites selected are in Schenectady County and Sullivan County in the Catskills.

In his do-over application, Gural was the sole applicant for the Binghamton-area region. He sweetened the earlier plan with a new proposal for a $195 million project consisting of 1,000 slot machines, 50 table games, a 161-room hotel, various entertainment and restaurant offerings, and a continuation of live racing.

Kevin Law, chairman of the siting panel, said the new design offered by Gural offers "a lot more than lipstick" compared with his previously rejected proposal. He said Gural substantially increased the equity in the project and decreased debt, which he said "significantly improves" the financial stability of the plan.

Law said the new Gural casino proposal "is viable, will increase tax revenues to New York state, and will contribute to the tourism industry" of upstate. He said Tioga Downs projects gross gaming revenue of $107 million and gaming tax revenue of $32 million by 2019.

Soon after the panel's selection of Tioga Downs for a casino site, the Oneida Indian Nation, which runs two casinos in central New York, praised the decision. But the tribe called on the Gaming Commission to deny a license to Lago Resort & Casino, the project recommended earlier this year by the state selection panel for a town in Seneca County between Rochester and Syracuse. That casino site is less than a half hour away from Finger Lakes Thoroughbred racetrack, and a horsemen's group at that track has sounded alarms about Finger Lakes' future if the Lago casino is ever built.

The Oneida Indian Nation, whose casinos will lose business if Lago opens, has joined with Finger Lakes and others in pushing back against the Lago plan. Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Nation representative, said the decision today to tap Tioga Downs "does nothing to address the location board's real perversion of Governor Cuomo's vision for gaming in the State of New York." He called on the state to rescind the preliminary approval of the Lago casino plan.