Spitzer’s Casino: Place Your Bets

The St. Regis Mohawk Indians want to build a $600 million casino on the site of Monticello Raceway, a harness track in the Catskill Mountains that has seen better days. Governor Eliot Spitzer, who promised during last year’s campaign to tackle upstate’s economic woes, has thrown his support behind the tribe’s plan.

On the face of it, the casino seems like a good idea. It could generate as much as $100 million for the state per year, and another $20 million for Sullivan County, the heart of the old Borscht Belt. What’s more, casinos are all the rage these days. If New York doesn’t build them, the high rollers will go elsewhere. The success of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and the imminent arrival of casinos in Pennsylvania, indicate that there’s money to be made off this particular vice.

Yes, there’s a moral argument, not to mention an aesthetic one, to be made against the spread of casinos. Should a nation founded on the ideals of republican virtue and Puritan restraint encourage its citizens to fritter away their hard-earned money in games of chance?

Well, as the saying goes, that horse left that barn a long time ago. In addition to legal parimutuel betting at racetracks, states sponsor multiple lotteries,
and gamblers in New York recently were given another outlet when the state approved plans to install slot machines at several racetracks. Yonkers Raceway, another broken-down harness track, has been reinvigorated with a new slots parlor. In Queens, Aqueduct Racetrack is due to open a slots parlor of its own soon.

So the moral argument is a bit antiquated. What of the practical arguments against casinos? In the case of the Sullivan County casino, environmentalists have raised legitimate concerns about the proposed casino’s impact on the Catskills watershed. That is not an issue to be dismissed lightly. Before he commits to the Catskill casino fully, Governor Spitzer must order a rigorous environmental review of the proposal, and the casino owners must commit to spending whatever it takes to ensure the integrity of the watershed. If the casino and related development are found to threaten the purity of New York City’s drinking water, the state has no choice but to deny approval. As noted in this space last week, New York City continues to enjoy pristine drinking water without expensive filtration. If the city has to build filtration plants because of development related to the casino, city residents will pay dearly while Sullivan County reaps the benefits.

Upstate New York has serious and systemic economic problems. Casinos alone are not the answer. But managed wisely, there’s no reason they cannot be part of the picture.