Casinos a bad bet for Catskills

When our group, Catskill Mountainkeeper, opened its doors in 2006, Gov. George Patakihad proposed multiple casinos for the region. We took on the Pataki proposal as our initial battle, because we didn’t see casino gambling as a good long-term fit for the region’s economic challenges.

Seven years later, it’s a different governor, but the same scheme.

We oppose this latest proposal, a change in the state’s constitution up for an Election Day vote on Nov. 5, for many of the same reasons we fought the last one. For us, the casino question is straightforward. When we again take a close look at the facts, it’s hard to buy the sunny picture the pro-casino forces are painting. They’ve even tried to stack the deck with slanted language in the referendum itself.

On virtually every front — from the environmental impact to the burden casinos place on local services to a likely increase in crime — we’re convinced the drawbacks vastly outstrip the benefits.

Our chief concerns include:

Environmental impact: Huge, Las Vegas-sized complexes would forever change the rural landscape and dramatically alter our Main Streets. A study by Sam Schwartz Engineering in 2006 showed Route 17 is already at capacity, as are other roadways. We also want to protect the region’s nearby watershed, which casino-related developments may threaten.

Social services and crime: Casinos have got to find new customers — and a good number of those will became gambling addicts. One Canadian study showed that virtually all casino revenue comes from problem gamblers, even though they made up only one-in-four casino visitors. Does the state really want to be in the position of creating addicts– which often results in increased crime?

Overpromised economic development: Anyone who’s been to Atlantic City knows that the good times haven’t come to that resort city. Walk a block or two away from the blackjack table and you’ll find some of the poorest neighborhoods in America. So gambling’s hardly the panacea many local politicians think it is.

We don’t come to this position lightly. Our goal in 2006 was to promote smarter, more sustainable economic development for the Catskills. At the same time, we’ve tried hard to avoid the trap of opposing every single idea from every developer or politician that comes our way, and made it our job to propose an alternative vision if we do oppose a proposal. For example, while we strenuously oppose fracking — which we believe puts the health of our water, air and land at severe risk — we’ve put forward an alternative energy plan that relies on sustainable sources of power.

As for casinos, we’ve even tried to reason with casino proponents. While we’re convinced casinos are a bad bet for the Catskills, allies told Gov. Andrew Cuomo that we would take a neutral position on November’s constitutional change if he guaranteed a limit of just one casino in the five-county region. Unfortunately, the governor and his pro-gambling allies have made it clear repeatedly that he supports at least two casinos here, and there’s no guarantee more wouldn’t come our way.

The future of the Catskills lies in development that preserves and builds on its special ecological and historic character, not in projects that anticipate converting its unique and cherished environment into the next Atlantic City.

For more than seven years, Mountainkeeper has pursued this goal. We will continue to do so and invite all those who share our vision to join with us in voting “no” on Proposition One on Nov. 5.

The writer is executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper