Wednesday, February 21, 2007

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

I have made fun of a lot of things in my year and a half of blogging, but I have largely stayed away from making fun of my hometown, which I did significantly on my first ever website during my freshman year of college. By the way, the best way for me to keep my ego in check is to read some of the pages from that embarrasment. Following that exercise in ego and narcissism, my best friend's dad berated me for directing such ridicule towards the place of my birth, and as the year's went on my venom for what was left of Monticello angered my father as well, who was particularly upset after I mentioned one of the many crackhouses three blocks away from my childhood home.

For nearly as long as I can remember, casino gambling has been the panacea of a region that for all intents and purpose was unplugged in 1987. I grew up in the Catskill Mountains, which from the 1950's until the 1980's, was the home to resort hotels, overeating, Jews, and a racetrack. As the 1980's ended, only overating, Jews, and a racetrack remained. It was the darndest thing, though; all the people who had worked in these hotels for decades, many as chambermaids and waiters, still wanted jobs. No hotels=no jobs= aforementioned crackhouses.

Not willing to make crack the vacation draw to Long Islanders and New Jersey residents, the members of the local government and decided that a casino would be the solution to the economic doldrums that the county and region was destined to face. We had no industry, no marketable skill sets, and thousands of underemployed or unemployed low-wage workers. Bring on the craps!

As one might imagine, simply placing a casino at a horse racing track or at the burned out shell of a former resort isn't particularly easy. With gambling being illegal in New York State except on Native American reservations (and the racetrack and the lottery and the stock market), the process was a long and slow one. And with a Governor for most of the 90's (Pataki) with as much energy as a corpse, the prospects were relatively dim. A potential casino had to be approved by the legislature, and the Governor, and the Department of the Interior, and an Indian tribe had to buy a plot of land... So for about 15 years, gambling was simply fodder for dinner table discussion and letter writing to the local paper: "Would gambling save the county? Would gambling bring more crime? When will the prostitutes arrive?"

The casino activists won their first victory three years ago, when the Monticello Raceway, home to degenerate gamblers for decades, was partially turned into a slot machine only casino, cleverly dubbed, "The Racino". It opened to big fanfare and celebration, with its cheap meals and elderly women by the busload carrying plastics jars of nickels. Unfortunately for the area, the racino didn't do such good business, and there was even some talk of it closing. I'm convinced it only stayed in business because my father frequented the dirt cheap breakfast buffets.

When Eliot "I once sued my own father" Spitzer replaced George "Frankenstein" Pataki as Governor of New York, there was hope once again for a real casino, with table games and a burgeoning illegal narcotics industry. This week, Spitzer announced an agreement with the St. Regis Mohawk tribe to build a true casino on the racetrack grounds. Final approval now rests with the Bush administration and Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. That is not a stage name.

So, predictably, there is enthusiasm, both among the government officials in Sullivan County who have been fighting for some sort of economic solution for 20 years, and among many of the residents, property owners who have long hoped for jobs for their family members and a gambling-induced spike in housing prices so they can finally cash out and sell their homes.

Also predictably, along with the enthusiasm, there is skepticism. Doubts about whether or not the promises of the Governor and the Mohawks would last, doubts about the fate of the casino with the Department of Interior, but more prevalently, doubts about gambling itself as a savior. Would the economies of three a dozen counties and dozens of town be resurrected by a casino? And further, would it make everything worse?

For my family, probably not. We have several hundred acres that would probably triple in value. My parents are getting older and maybe it's time they move some place warmer. Now they can sell their homes and leave town, a whole lot richer than they ever were during the rest of their lives. So I guess it sounds pretty good for them.

It doesn't sound so good for the thousands of people who won't make a profit when they sell their homes, or the thousands of people who won't get jobs at the new casino, or the thousands of people who won't be able to feed their families on the $7 an hour they make at their jobs cleaning up after gamblers. As in any economic solution, there will plenty of people left on the outside looking in, but it seems likely that here, in this situation, there will be a whole hell of a lot of people on the outside. Job training? Vocational programs in the schools? Real economic development? Nope. Let's employ 3000 unskilled workers, pay them 7 bucks an hour, and call it a century.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Allegedly the Concord is back, with construction beginning this summer. 200 brand new rooms which will probably remain empty most of the year.

7:24 PM  

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