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N.Y. Gaming Commission approves three new casinos for upstate

ALBANY – Four years after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo promised a jolt to the upstate economy with the expansion of state-sanctioned gambling, state regulators Monday gave licenses to three for-profit operators to open full-blown casinos in regions from the Finger Lakes to the southern Catskills.

The state Gaming Commission’s decision will add more than 5,000 slot machines and more than 200 table games to an already crowded upstate gambling market that includes the New York Lottery, Native American casinos, racetrack-based casinos, and legal and illegal online gambling outlets.

The three facilities will feature hotels, restaurants and full-scale gambling halls with real slot machines – unlike the look-alike gambling devices at nine racetracks across the state with video lottery terminals – and table games, such as poker and blackjack.

The most fought-over of the three – Lago Resort & Casino in Seneca County midway between Rochester and Syracuse – is expected, its developers have already stated, to cannibalize existing casino gambling operations stretching from the Seneca Nation’s operations in the Buffalo area to Buffalo’s Delaware North’s Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack to the Oneida Nation’s casino empire in Central New York.

The Oneida Nation has been expected to launch a court challenge once the Gaming Commission issued the license to Lago, whose owners include Rochester real estate developer Thomas C. Wilmot.

On Monday afternoon, the tribe wasted no time: Its law firm, Williams & Connolly, dashed off a letter within an hour of the commission’s Lago decision to formally notify the state of a coming lawsuit over the matter. The Oneida Nation called the casino award “the predictable outcome of a process that was predetermined to reach this result.”

The Seneca Nation did not comment on the casino awards. The Senecas’ 2002 casino compact with the state is due to expire next year, though it can be extended an additional seven years if neither side objects.

Gaming industry officials have said the tribe’s casinos in downtown Buffalo and Niagara Falls can be expected to lose patrons when Lago opens, especially those from the Rochester area, who will be much closer to the new facility in the Town of Tyre, Seneca County, just off the Thruway.

Cuomo, who traveled to Schenectady and Sullivan counties last year when those communities were given preliminary backing for one of the casino developments, did not comment Monday when the final awards were made.

Most directly affected among current gambling ventures will be Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack, a Farmington facility owned by Delaware North and located only a half-hour drive from the future Lago casino.

Chris Riegle, general manager at Finger Lakes, said his venue could be out of business by sometime in 2017 unless state officials support proposals to provide additional financial incentives to the Ontario County facility to help it compete with Lago. He said that most of Lago’s business will come from his track and casino, the Oneida casinos and Vernon Downs, a harness track and casino east of Utica.

“At the end of the day, it’s not economic development to ship 1,700 jobs from Ontario County to Seneca County,” Riegle said of the approval of the Lago casino.

But Wilmot, the Lago developer, called it a “huge day” for the Finger Lakes region with the eventual creation of as many as 1,800 permanent jobs “for people who desperately need them.”

Besides Lago, the state Gaming Commission approved licenses for Rivers Casino & Resort along the Mohawk River in Schenectady and Montreign Resort Casino in Sullivan County in an area of the southern Catskills long abandoned by what was once a mighty tourism industry.

The Gaming Commission approved the three license applications in a meeting Monday afternoon in Manhattan. The panel’s members took the action without any comment on the casino applications or the major gambling expansion they were embarking on for New York State. The three approved casinos were chosen by a separate state gambling location board last December from among 16 applicants.

Still pending is a fourth license application for a Las Vegas-style casino west of Binghamton. There are also an additional three licenses to be awarded in future years; industry experts say gambling enterprises will try to push the state to locate them in the biggest population prize: in and around New York City.

Cuomo, in his 2012 State of the State address, outlined his vision for bringing jobs to upstate New York with the spread of casino resorts in what he has said will be true “destination” attractions to lure tourists and jobs to economically battered areas. Western New York, except for a sliver of land extending between Rochester and Syracuse, was not eligible for one of the casino licenses because the region already has been given exclusive full-scale casino rights to the Seneca Nation.

Since Cuomo’s announcement, though, the casino industry, especially in the Northeast, has taken a financial hit, as places such as Atlantic City, N.J., and Connecticut have been struggling to compete with an increasing number of casinos.