By Harry Keaney
Dull and dated, a place dying through complacency. For years now, this has been the mantra of those decrying the lack of tourism investment in New York’s Great Northern Catskills, once a resort region bustling with the Irish.
But this summer, for perhaps the first time in decades, an air of hope, even cautious optimism, is wafting over the bucolic hills and valleys of places like Greene County, home to East Durham, the hamlet that declares itself the Emerald Isle of the Catskills.
With a natural beauty reminiscent for many, particularly older immigrants, of the rural Ireland they left behind, the Irish Catskills remain an area crying out for tourism development. But whether plans and projects now in the pipeline will eventually lead to a revival in the mountains is about as predictable as the roll of a dice. However, it’s actually from the prospect of gambling, perhaps in a $100 million casino in the town of Catskill, that much of the latest buzz in the area now emanates.
It’s not just a casino; there are other local tourism development projects in the works, among them plans for expansion by the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural & Sports Center, in East Durham, and an "Irish Village" project, depicting life in the Ireland of yesteryear. But if crowds are again to flock to the area, it seems few ventures would attract as many people — 7,000 a day by some estimates — as the proposed casino.
As in Monticello, farther south in Sullivan County, where a casino is also proposed, it would be the St. Regis Mohawk Indians who would operate the planned Catskill casino. The St. Regis Mohawks reservation is on the Canadian border, near Hogansburg, N.Y., where the tribe runs the Akwesasne Casino.
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Last January, the Greene County Tourism Association announced that the tribe had taken an option on a 34-acre parcel of land and an adjacent 60 acres across from the New York State Thruway Exit 21 exchange, 15 miles from East Durham, the same location where a casino was proposed several years ago.
According to news reports at the time, the plans included a countywide transportation system, a centralized reservations system that would enable the casino to arrange nearby accommodation for visitors, and a joint marketing program with other resorts, attractions and tourism sites in the county.
The casino would be developed by the Unity Development Group LLC, which would be managed by the principals of Niagara-based Sevenson Corporation, Ed Barber, a consultant to Sevenson, told the Echo. The managing partner of Unity Development would be Michael Elia, the chief executive officer of Sevenson.
However, it now appears that the issue of options on property on which to develop the casino has yet to be finalized.
"We are in the process of negotiating the options for the real property in the Greene County area," said Barber, who has lived in the Catskill area for more than 50 years and is the Greene County Republican party chairman.
When negotiations on the options were complete, an application would then be made to the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior. "We expect that the application will be completed in a matter of months," Barber said.
Proposals not seen
While most business people in the area would welcome the influx of potential customers, others were more cautious in their reactions, saying they had yet to see complete plans for the casino.
Peter Markou, Greene County’s economic developer, said he had not seen a formal proposal for the casino. "Until I see a proposal, I cannot comment on it," said Markou, who is also chairman of the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Gaming.
Neither has the director of Greene County Promotion Department, C. Kerk Moore, seen any formal proposals. "Although we believe it would be good for the county as far as eventual tourism and job placement is concerned, we have not been involved in the negotiations," he said.
However, he added that if the casino were approved and somebody started to build, there would be construction jobs, and goods and services would be purchased in the county.
In addition, Moore said that if one tracked other casinos, one would see that tourism eventually grows in the area because of the casino. "You look at Foxwoods and what Foxwoods has done for Mystic," he said, referring to a casino in Connecticut.
However, Barber, the consultant to Sevenson, was more direct. "This could be the rejuvenation for the entire tourism industry in this area," he said.
But as to the chances of the project actually going ahead, Catskill Town Supervisor Joseph Izzo, referring to competing casinos in Atlantic City and Connecticut, said that this is "a real big-money issue."
"I think we are talking about a lot of lobbying on this issue, pro and con," he said. He added that he was under no illusion that the project may not materialize for years.
But he added: "My personal feeling is that I think it’s great. I look forward to them coming."
Izzo said that the proposed casino combined with the East Durham Irish Center and the proposed village project, as well as other recreational venues that would follow the casino, "would be of great benefit" to the lower Greene County area, where there were once thriving resorts.
Of course, with most casino projects, the journey from planning to eventual reality can be long and tortuous. Take, for example, the much more publicized casino planned for Monticello.
On April 6, the United States Department of the Interior granted the St. Regis Mohawks permission to open a $500 million casino beside Monticello Racetrack. However, after the Interior Department’s approval came through, the world’s largest gambling company, Park Place Entertainment, announced that it had signed an option to buy Kutsher’s Country Club, one of the oldest resorts in the Catskills, to develop a 1,400-acre entertainment complex and gambling hall that would be owned by the St. Regis Mohawks. The agreement, according to news reports, grants Park Place, which owns gambling operations in New Jersey, Nevada, Mississippi and overseas, the right to develop and manage Mohawk casinos throughout New York.
This proposed resort, on Anawana Lake, is about five miles north of Monticello Raceway.
Now, it’s unclear which project will go ahead.
However, there are many who feel that, sooner or later, a casino will eventually be opened somewhere in the Catskills.
"I think it’s going to happen," said Clare-born businessman Dennis Meehan, a consultant to a group called Irish Village USA, which has been promoting the idea of an Irish Village, depicting life in Ireland in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, for the Catskills area.
However, if gambling casinos are to operate anywhere in New York, they must get federal and state approval.
Gov. George Pataki, a supporter of casinos, apparently has such authority; last March a judge threw out two lawsuits challenging the governor’s authority to approve gambling on Indian land. However, a few days later, Pataki proposed a bill seeking approval from the legislature to open Indian casinos. The bill also mandates a local referendum after the proposal is passed by the legislature. However, it’s not clear if this bill would cover the Mohawks, who already have a gambling compact with the state.
The Republican leader of the State Senate, Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, has been reluctant to consider gambling measures. But a week after the Interior Department’s approval last April of the Monticello project, Bruno said he might take up a measure that would allow the Indian casino to be opened.
Bruno, however, continues to oppose a provision of Pataki’s bill that would allow slot machines on Indian reservations, saying the State constitution forbids the machines.
Last week, just before the New York State Assembly adjourned for the summer, it declined to pass either the state senate’s, or Governor Pataki’s, version of a bill that would have required legislative approval for the proposed casino in Monticello.
Although it is unconstitutional to operate a casino in New York State, casinos operated on Indian’s land are exempt. The land for the Monticello project, held by investors and local business, would have been put in trust for the Mohawks, establishing a tax-free sovereign Indian territory and bypassing New York’s prohibition on gambling. Hence the explanation for Indian involvement in the proposed casino gambling ventures.
The Monticello casino, on 30 acres 90 miles from New York City, was expected to employ 3,000 people and attract nine million visitors annually. The possibility that a casino in Monticello might become reality also lured real estate developers into buying up property for hotels, conference centers and resorts in what was once the vibrant Borscht Belt, a favorite of Jewish families.
In Greene County, property prices are on the rise but not everyone thinks this is related to the prospect of a casino in the area.
"We have been busier this year and prices seem to be edging up," Linda Overbaugh of Rip Van Winkle Realty in the town of Catskill told the Echo. "I have been in the business for 11 years and this is the first time I have seen prices start to go up."
But, added Overbaugh, "I do not think it has anything to do with the casino."
"I think Greene County has so much to offer, we have a rural atmosphere and we are only two hours outside Manhattan," she said.
As regards the proposed casino, Overbaugh said she had "mixed emotions."
"I think we need other activities for people coming to the area," she said, adding that she feared that people were going to "get in their cars, go to the casino and go back home."
"We have to do a lot more studying and learning before we can make a decision on this," she said.
In Connecticut last week, the state’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, called for a moratorium on federal recognition of American Indian tribes, saying the process was "fundamentally flawed."
According to local news reports, Blumenthal, in a speech in Stamford, Conn., cited a Bureau of Indian Affairs official’s statement that substantial political and financial influence is behind many tribes’ applications for recognition. Federal recognition often leads to untaxed casinos on untaxed land, which is not subject to state, local and federal laws and regulations, Blumenthal said.
Referring to Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in New London County in Connecticut, Blumenthal asked, "How did we come to the point that two casinos are really the lifeblood of a part of the state?"
Irish are preparing
Meanwhile, whatever happens in Greene County in New York State will undoubtedly have consequences for the development of Irish-American tourism there. And for many businesses and entertainment venues in the area, the prospects of thousands of visitors arriving daily is as much a challenge as an opportunity.
Among those hoping to take advantage of any influx, if it happens, is the Michael J. Quill Irish Cultural and Sports Center.
Ken Dudley, a Greene County legislator and president of the Quill Center, in East Durham, said that, last June, the Center purchased the Weldon House on 50 acres of property adjoining the Quill Center for $140,000.
The Quill Center property now covers a total of 108 acres.
Dudley said that the main building of the Weldon House was a dining hall with rooms upstairs. "We will convert this into a headquarters for the operations of the Michael J. Quill Center," Dudley said.
He added that the center would also be expanding the Peter J. O’Neill Library in the new building to encompass genealogy study, an Irish Sports Hall of Fame and a Musicians Hall of Fame.
A theater to stage Irish cultural events with seating for about 300 people also forms part of the Quill Center’s plans.
Dudley said that the main entrance of the Weldon House would be dedicated to the Kerryman from whom the Quill Center takes its name, the late Michael J. Quill, founder of the Transport Workers Union of America. Quill, probably best known for his role in the 1966 transit strike in New York City.
Dudley pointed out that members of the Transport Workers Union of America had been good supporters of the Quill Center, helping raise almost half a million dollars.
"We should all feel indebted to Michael Quill for the better working conditions that we all enjoy today," Dudley said.
A sports field that’s part of the Quill Center is also called after another famed Irish transport union leader in the U.S., Roscommon man John Lawe.
Dudley said the rest of the grounds of the Weldon House would be used for the development of the Irish village project. However, Meehan, consultant to Irish Village USA, said," Our plan is to have our village on their grounds as a separate entity."
Meehan is based in HoHoKus, N.J., where he runs a trucking business, Commercial Vehicles Consultants, Inc. He has frequented the Catskill area since the early 1960s, has been a weekend resident since 1985 and hopes to eventually retire there.
"Our village concept is copyrighted," Meehan added. Asked if he thought there might be a dispute between Irish Village USA and the Quill Center over who is the originator of the concept, Meehan said he had engaged attorneys to resolve that. He added that he may even bring his idea elsewhere.
But, said Dudley: "The Michael J. Quill Center is going forward with the Irish village project." He said he hoped Meehan would work with the center.
Despite the apparent difference between Dudley and Meehan, they, like many others, agree that their plans and the prospect of the casino in the Town of Catskill could augment each other and create the impetus for a revival.
"It would all tie in as tourism and entertainment," Meehan said, adding that areas along the Hudson and the Erie Canal are now being restored.
Meehan said he thought a casino in the town of Catskill would be a great boom to Greene County. "Catskill is on the river and there is a move to restore towns along the river," he said.
Dudley said it looked as though a casino would work positively, but, he added, he hadn’t "seen exactly what they’re talking about."
Still, he said he thought it would help develop the area as a tourist attraction because it would mean more activities for visitors. Despite the fall-off in the Catskill’s popularity in recent years, Dudley predicted that the area would again become a popular resort destination.
He pointed that part of the reason for the area’s decline was improved transportation, including air travel, making access to other places quicker and easier, as well as changes in family life. When families lived in apartments in New York City, the greenery of the Catskills was a treat, but when these families moved to suburban areas, they often had green areas beside them, Dudley said.
Also, he said that at one time, when whole families came to the Catskills, a mother and her children might remain for eight weeks while her husband returned to his job in the city.
This was also a point echoed by Meehan, who said that when women joined the workforce, whole families did not continue to come to the area for long stays.
Dudley also pinpointed another basic business chore for any resort area. "We need to promote our area better," he said, pointing to such nearby attractions as the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and the state capital, Albany.
In fact, Greene County’s website points out an array of attractions that are within an hour away. Indeed, the Greene County Promotion Department’s 50-page travel guide is full of attractions, places to stay, festivals, cultural centers, art and theater, workshops, museums and camp grounds, as well as activities such as golfing, boating, biking, fishing, hunting, horseback riding and skiing.
Irish events, for example, include the annual East Durham Irish Festival every Memorial weekend, an arts week and the 10th annual Irish traditional music festival next month, the annual East Durham feis in August and the Celtic Festival in September.
But, if this peaceful area of spectacular natural beauty is to capitalize as it could on its tourism potential, it needs investment and promotion. Then, it needs the people to come. And judging from other areas, a casino would certainly be a major draw.
Harold Kelly, a volunteer at the Quill Center, said he felt the only drawback to locating a casino in the area was if it included a large hotel.
The plans announced last January by the Greene County Tourism Association did not include hotel rooms.
"If a large hotel goes with it, the people coming here will not come to our local hamlets," he said.
Other than that, Kelly said he didn’t have a problem with a casino. "They are going to Atlantic City and Connecticut anyway," he said.