Even holding an empty hand, Orange County officials weigh in on the impact of Catskill casinos

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:58

    GOSHEN-Casino opponents cited the nightmarish traffic jams, increased air pollution and lung illnesses created by exhaust fumes from that traffic and the potential increase in crime that has historically followed gambling centers. A handful of proponents stressed the need for the jobs casinos would provide. They also asserted that the casino workers and the casinos themselves would spark Orange County's economy. Most of the 20 or so people who spoke at a public information meeting at the Orange County Government Center in Goshen Monday night were strongly against building casinos in Sullivan County. The forum, called by the Orange County Legislature, drew about 60 people. Legislature Chairman Alan Seidman stressed that the meeting was not a public hearing. The New York State Legislature has sponsored several public hearings on the casino issue, but none has been held in Orange County and none has allowed open participation by the public. However, a tape and transcript of the comments would be forwarded to state legislators, he said. Harry Ross of Orange Environment, speaking on behalf of OE's President Michael Edelstein, predicted some 25 million additional automobile trips per year. "There is no room on the roads for five successful casinos," he said. "And there's no room on the landscape for any additional lanes (on Route 17)." As Route 17 becomes jammed, gamblers and commuters will look for alternative routes, Ross said. "I think some of those clever drivers are going to find Goshen Turnpike." Montgomery Supervisor Susan Cockburn agreed that the problem is not just Route 17. Her major concern was Route 17K, which she said could catch overflow traffic. She listed a half a dozen intersections that are now traffic nightmares and predicted far worse conditions to follow. Several studies produced by the casino industry emphasized the advantage of being close to a major market like New York City, noted Woodbury Supervisor Sheila Conroy. None mentioned the traffic bottleneck Route 17 would create, and none recommended major improvements, she said. Constructing the casinos will employ some 10,000 workers, said Josh Sommers of the Catskill Coalition. That's good news for workers in the construction trades in Sullivan, many of whom are unemployed, he said. But it's also good news for Orange County businesses, he added. "That's a $2 million payroll for each casino. Where will those people shop? Sullivan County doesn't have a single major mall. Resort casinos will need millions of dollars worth of goods and services, and they will buy a lot of them in Orange County." Sommers said he agreed with the speakers who emphasized the need for improvements to Route 17. The coalition is pressing for these improvements because not only it is in the interests of Orange and Sullivan counties, but also because it is in the interests of the casino operators, he added. Todd Diorio, the President of the Hudson Valley Construction and Building Trades Council said the workers he represents are behind the casino project. Many are unemployed as the building boom and the economy slow down, he said. And, he noted, the Sullivan County Legislature voted in favor of the five-casino plan. "They are trying to present this as environmentalists versus labor," said Goshen attorney Michael Sussman. "But labor lives in the county, and they have to live with asthmatic kids and not being able to get where they want to go." Sussman also called for improvements in Orange County that would help add jobs, such as infrastructure improvements and possible a major medical center. He also claimed the Orange County Legislature had failed to take a lead role in opposing casinos when they were first proposed. Goshen Supervisor Honey Bernstein acknowledged that jobs are important, but what kind of jobs? "Do we want such uses as landfills and nuclear power plants? They also produce jobs. Surely we can seek better jobs than casinos; activities that add to the quality of life can also produce jobs." While traffic and the environment were major themes among the speakers, potential increases in crime and the moral aspects of gambling were also on people's minds. After 23 years with the New York State Police, eight years of which were in the gambling unit, Jerry Voss said he's convinced that gambling is associated with other crimes. "They like to use the word ‘gaming,' he said, naming a litany of organized crime figures that had been involved in gambling over the years. "It covers gambling's sordid past." Bob Lawrence waxed biblical, citing "the demonic trilogy of alcohol tobacco and gambling." Governments that become involved in these sins are bound to fall, he asserted. "We believe God will always bless our country. I think the people of Sodom and Gomorra felt the same way." But few thought the public meeting would change things. "We in Orange County won't decide whether there will be casinos in Sullivan County, or whether it will be one, three or five," said Woodbury Councilwoman Lorraine McNeill. "But it will have a serious impact on our County." County Executive Edward Diana did not see the public meeting as a waste of time. "This was an open public discussion of concerns. The official public hearings were by invitation only. Any time people can be heard in open discussion, I would support that," he said.