As New York City Casinos Loom, a Catskills Community Fears for Its Future

Resorts World Catskills casino in front of a bright, gray sky
About five minutes south of Monticello, one of New York's big bets towers above the treeline in a hunk of silver. | Miles Dawydko

With crowds bussed in from New York City, Resorts World Catskills gave a boost to the local economy. What happens when competition moves in downstate?

Arabella Saunders   ·   September 11, 2023

On a Wednesday morning in August, about 10 minutes south of the village of Monticello, two charter buses are parked outside a gleaming, 18-story hotel and casino: Resorts World Catskills.

A line of about 40 elderly people stretches along the southside entrance. The group is from a senior center in New Jersey, and they have just come up the long, wooded drive leading to the $1.2 billion resort. It features restaurants, an indoor waterpark, a golf course, a conference center, and a nature center. Banners dangle from light posts on the way in, displaying kids on boogie boards and women holding ice cream cones superimposed with phrases like “time to indulge.”

In the afternoon, there will be five buses. Some make daily four-hour round trip journeys from Flushing, Queens, to the Catskills casino, where an entire wing, about a third of the casino floor, is marketed toward Asian gamblers. But with an influx of closer casinos on the horizon, the gambling facility’s appeal may soon decrease.

Resorts World Catskills, one of the four casinos New York approved by constitutional amendment in 2013, was touted as an economic development effort that would create jobs and generate revenue for upstate communities through taxes and tourism. It opened in February 2018, and today it provides around 1,400 union jobs. The casino has generated just half the tax revenue that had initially been projected, but it has attracted tourists and boosted the local economy.

Now, as New York prepares to license up to three more casinos in the New York City area, locals worry that the already underperforming resort will lose customers. The busloads will dwindle, and the benefits the community was promised, they fear, will go with them.

New York Focus spoke with four employees at Resorts World Catskills, all of whom said there has been talk among staff about how the New York City casinos could impact their jobs. Sullivan County treasurer Nancy Buck said it’s a “huge concern” for the county. “It could be devastating.”

Resorts World Catskills did not respond to a detailed list of questions.

“I think we’re gonna feel a little punch,” said Bill Rieber, supervisor of Thompson, the 16,700-person town where Resorts World is located. “I think they really need to take a serious look at how they market this casino here for people to continue to be drawn in 80 miles out of New York City for something other than gaming.”

A mostly-empty floor of slot machines at Resorts World Catskills, with one gambler sitting off to the side.
The casino floor at Resorts World Catskills. | Arabella Saunders

Jay-Z wants to open a casino in Times Square. Steve Cohen wants one near Citi Field. The top three floors of Saks Fifth Avenue may host another. All told, there are at least 12 proposals, by City & State’s count, for new casinos in New York City.

When New York legalized casinos in 2013, it was determined to spread the facilities across the state. The licenses were split into two rounds, with the four upstate casinos getting a seven-year head start. This January, applications opened for up to three casinos downstate.

“The industry wanted them in New York City because they knew where the money was going to be made, and where the population flow was going to be,” said Senator Liz Krueger. “But they bought into this deal that they would open for upstate, wait a few years, and then, go for the gold with the three downstate.”

Krueger said that at the time, there were questions from industry leaders and legislators as to whether a casino could give up its upstate license and trade it for a downstate one.

“So they could end up, perhaps, with seven casinos downstate and none upstate,” Krueger said.

None of the prospective proprietors have yet submitted applications, a spokesperson for the New York State Gaming Commission told New York Focus, and there are no deadlines or projections as to when a downstate casino may be operational. One major state-run agency is eagerly awaiting the announcement: The Metropolitan Transit Authority anticipates using casino license fee revenue to fund badly needed repairs and other operations.

“The Gaming Facility Location Board’s [request for applications] makes it very clear that it will consider the impact on other gaming facilities as part of its deliberations,” said Lee Park, a spokesperson for the state agency.

The Genting Group, a Malaysian conglomerate that owns the casino, is already hedging its bets. Beyond its proposal for a Queens racino, Resorts World opened a new location in the Hudson Valley. It’s inside Newburgh Mall in Orange County and features slot machines, electronic table games, sports betting, and two bars. Rieber thinks Resorts World Catskills has already taken a revenue hit as a result of the Newburgh location.

“I’m watching the numbers,” Rieber said. “But it looks to me like they’re not growing.”

The prospect of a New York City casino pulling customers from rural locations has been a cause of worry since the casino legislation’s inception.

“[It was] a real concern, always,” Buck said. But she said the community needed the jobs. “We were really a depressed area.”

The abandoned pool at Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel, in the town of Liberty, Sullivan County, taken on May 1, 2013.
Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel, in the nearby town of Liberty, closed in 1986. Most buildings were demolished in 2018; pool photographed on May 1, 2013. | Amy McGovern

Older residents wistfully recall Sullivan County’s heyday in the 1950s, when the idyllic Catskill Mountains were dotted with resorts, bungalows, summer camps, and boarding houses packed with up to 150,000 guests a year.

By the late 1960s, the area began to decline. Airfare was more affordable, childcare expectations were shifting as more women entered the workforce, and the increased accessibility of air conditioning meant fewer people were itching to escape the city heat. Over the next four decades, as resorts shuttered and bungalows were abandoned, the region was hard hit by job loss and climbing poverty.

A single chair at the abandoned pool at Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel, in the town of Liberty, Sullivan County, taken on May 1, 2013.
As resorts shuttered and bungalows were abandoned, job loss and poverty hit Sullivan County. | Amy McGovern

Casinos were touted as a solution. In the 1980s, signs that said “Casinos Mean Jobs,” a reference to recently legalized casinos in Atlantic City, lined Route 17. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, multiple attempts to bring in tribal casinos — the only ones permitted under state law until 2013 — failed.

Then, in 2014, the decades-long dream began to take shape when the state approached Sullivan County about casino site selection. Local leaders envisioned job opportunities and an increase in tourism, which meant an increase in customers at local restaurants, shops, and hotels.

They pulled together a team of local leaders, marketing experts, and lobbyists to testify about the former resort community’s need for the project at a state hearing. “It was the most overwhelming community support of anything I’ve done in 33 years,” Rieber said.

Rieber is still proud of the project today, he said, despite the casino delivering just half the local tax revenue it had initially promised.

“I’m watching the numbers. But it looks to me like they’re not growing.”

—Thompson town supervisor Bill Rieber

Vegas-style casinos pay taxes in New York on house winnings. The state keeps most of the revenue for education funding, and the rest goes to local governments in the areas surrounding the casinos.

In a report published in August, the Office of the New York State Comptroller found that all four state-approved casinos failed to meet their initial tax revenue projections in 2019. In 2022, only one casino, Tioga Downs, had met its 2019 projection. The other three, including Resorts World Catskills, only attained 50 to 60 percent of their initial projections.

Three of the four casinos have received a combined $119 million in local tax breaks, according to data the Authorities Budget Office collects from local economic development agencies — nearly $53 million of which went to developers for Resorts World Catskills. The data is self-reported by the economic development agencies and has not been verified for accuracy by the Authorities Budget Office.

“They promise they’re bringing your locality revenue, they promise they’re bringing economic activity and jobs, and then the first thing they’re doing is saying, ‘In order to get us here, we want you to give us tax write-offs,’” Krueger said.

The state comptroller’s report pointed to multiple factors behind the lagging revenue, including two state policy changes: New York lowered taxes on money collected from slot and electronic table games in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and it authorized mobile sports betting, undercutting the practice in-house.

“First they get their deals, and then they cry poverty and make the state lower their taxes.”

—State Senator Liz Krueger

A new bill related to online gaming could further eat into in-house betting and reduce casino foot traffic, according to the state comptroller. Sponsored by Senator Joseph Addabbo, it would authorize online interactive gaming, meaning players could bet on games that are normally played in person at a casino. Online interactive gaming is already legal in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

Maria Doulis, a deputy comptroller, said that casinos should be scrutinized for their impacts on communities beyond tax revenue, including economic impacts on other sectors and social challenges.

“The increased incidence of problem gambling is something that the comptroller has really underscored as something that needs to be better studied and examined and understood,” Doulis said. “Because as these forms of gambling expand and proliferate, and there’s greater nexus to any single New Yorker, there is the potential for greater addiction to gambling.”

Assemblymember Ron Kim says that Resorts World’s strategy of bussing people in from Queens comes at the expense — literally — of his constituency.

“These are mostly low-income, poverty-stricken immigrants, and a lot of them are seniors who are literally just getting on the bus for a free ride,” Kim said, or to sell the $45 slot machine vouchers the casino gives them as a promotional incentive. If they do gamble, they’re often spending money they do not have.

“It seems like, for whatever reason, they’re exploiting this vulnerable side of our community,” Kim said.

Monticello Raceway building with a blue sky behind it.
“They think it's a shithole,” one resident said of the racetrack. “They want to close it.” | Arabella Saunders

There are whispers of impending job loss at Resorts World Catskills. Ten minutes down the road, another group is also worried they’ll soon lose their jobs — and there, the conversation is louder, angrier, and free-flowing. The people having it say it’s a direct result of the casino, which they hate.

These people are the horse owners, trainers, drivers, and spectators at the Monticello Raceway, a harness racing track that’s been operating since 1958.

On an August afternoon, in a set of shiny bleachers that seats 90, seven people are betting on the races: an older couple and a group of five boys who work at a nearby summer camp. Another 30 people are spread out on benches in front of the enclosed grandstand that now sits derelict.

“When it was here in the grandstand, it was like everybody was like family, almost,” says Donna Rodriquez, 68, who has been coming to the raceway since she was 13 years old and remembers when it was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. She tries to attend every race to watch her grandson, who is a driver.

“Now all the casino does is put garbage and junk up there,” Rodriquez said about the old grandstand.

When Resorts World Catskills opened, it took over management of the Monticello Raceway, which was already an asset of Genting Group.

Robert Johnson, 48, a horse owner and lifetime resident of Sullivan County, said that at first, he supported the casino taking over. He changed his mind a year and a half later, when he saw how the casino was not maintaining the grounds.

“No matter what, when you’re dealing with a big corporation, they don’t care what the community says.”

—Robert Johnson, lifetime Sullivan County resident

“They think it’s a shithole,” Johnson said. “They want to close it.”

More than one thousand of the slot machines that occupy the Newburgh Mall casino were once located at the raceway. They were moved when the state approved Resorts World’s request to open an operation in Orange County. Rodriquez and Johnson said there has been less business at the raceway now that the slots are gone.

The harness racing industry has been struggling for decades, long before Resorts World came to Sullivan County. Still, Rodriquez and Johnson both said that if the raceway closes, hundreds of people will lose their jobs.

“No matter what, when you’re dealing with a big corporation, they don’t care what the community says,” Johnson said.

Two-part banner on a light post reading "It was worth it. See you soon," and "We'll miss your smile" in front of a blue sky.
When you leave Resorts World Catskills, a banner says "It was worth it." But was the casino? | Arabella Saunders

As you drive away from Resorts World Catskills, the banners that greeted you on the way in have a flip side to say goodbye. Once again, there is a photo of two women eating ice cream cones. The phrase pasted on top:

“It was worth it.”

But was the casino?

“I just don’t see [casinos] falling into the category of good economic development investments,” Krueger said.

Assemblymember Aileen Gunther, who represents the Sullivan County area and was a key player in bringing Resorts World to the region, said the casino has paid off by bringing tourists to the area — a vital benefit that she says a New York City casino would put in jeopardy.

“After all my struggling and screaming and yelling, and doing what I did, and working with so many people in my community and the people that were coming in with Resorts World, I don’t want to lose anything we’ve gained,” Gunther said.

Kim, the Queens assemblymember, said that while casinos like Resorts World Catskills may create jobs for counties, they’re often back in Albany within a couple of years asking for bailouts. Earlier this year, Vernon Downs, a racino in Oneida County, asked state lawmakers to restore a $2 million tax break. It passed the Senate and Assembly and is now waiting for Governor Kathy Hochul’s approval.

“First they get their deals, and then they cry poverty and make the state lower their taxes,” Krueger said.

Kim argued that there are better ways to grow upstate economies, like investing in the local agricultural industry and academic institutions.

“There’s a lot of talent in upstate New York that we just haven’t really leveraged the way we should,” Kim said. “And we should be — instead of trying to bribe casino companies to develop new jobs.”

In the meantime, buses full of Asian Americans from Queens will still spill into the casino lobby. The Thompson town supervisor will still monitor financial reports to see how much tax revenue the town is losing to other casinos. Donna Rodriquez will still spend most afternoons watching her grandson race horses — for as long as she can.

Arabella Saunders is a Report for America corps member covering economic development for New York Focus. Her reporting has also appeared in Vice, HuffPost, DCReport, and The Assembly NC.