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Local News

Casino Could Aid Borscht Belt

Hadley Pawlak
The Associated Press

MONTICELLO, N.Y. (AP) - Gone for good are the days of the comics and crooners, but a casino could bring back something the depressed Borscht Belt hasn't seen in decades: crowds and cash.

With the blessing of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs last week, hopes are renewed that an old harness race track 90 miles northwest of New York City is closer to becoming a gambling gold mine in the Catskill Mountains.

The agency on Thursday gave the St. Regis Mohawk tribe permission to build a casino, allowing the state to transfer 30 acres of land at the Monticello Raceway harness track to the tribe. It is now up to Gov. George Pataki to approve it.

"It better be a reality,'' said Elaine Streisfeld. "If Pataki doesn't give his signature to get the casino here, an atom bomb might as well be dropped on Sullivan County. It won't matter.''

Streisfeld bought the Colonial Park Country Club when she moved here from Brooklyn in 1945.

Soon after she opened a tchotchke shop on Broadway which remains in business today.

"Broadway in the summer, well, you couldn't find a space on the sidewalk to walk on,'' she recalled. "Stores stayed opened after 11 o'clock and business was good.''

This year, Streisfeld said, she is going out of business as soon as she can.

"It's just heartbreaking,'' said Cathleen Crumley-Doherty, 27, who has worked for Streisfeld since high school. "It's like this county is cursed.''

Crumley-Doherty's family has lived in Sullivan County since the 1800's and has watched the area turn from beautiful farmlands and orchards, to a booming Jewish resort town. The boom faded in recent decades as better highways and air travel and most recently gambling in Atlantic City lured vacationers to other places.

One of the region's main roads, Route 52, is dotted with blank or faded billboards, rotting, abandoned bungalow colonies and old resorts and hotels now the home to Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, and Eastern Ashrams.

"I'm here because my roots are very important to me, but out of Monticello High School's class of 1990, there are three of us left living here,'' Crumley-Doherty said. She estimates that she graduated with 200.

Sullivan County was once home to hundreds of hotels and over 1,000 bungalows, according to Streisfeld's husband Stanley, who was often given the job of picking up bands in New York City and bringing them up to Monticello's hotels because he had a big 1953 Ford.

"There had to be 1 million extra people here in the summer, and now, there's two hotels standing,'' he said.

"If we get the casino, the Concord could reopen and, oh, it could be good again,'' Stanley Streisfeld said.

The Concord, one of the Catskills' biggest and classiest hotels, closed in November 1998.

In March, Louis Cappelli, a Westchester developer and big time Republican contributor who bought the Concord and Gossingers, said he has plans to build a $500 million year-round resort.

"If the Concord opens and the casino's here, people will have to drive down Broadway and they'll stop for a gift or an ice cream like before,'' Mrs. Streisfeld said. "Before, walking down Broadway was a fun, exciting night out.''

A proposal by the Oneida Indian Nation five years ago to put a casino at the racetrack fell apart in the development stage. The current proposal has been under review by the federal government for three years.

Jaquie Leventoff, president of the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce, said it is the closet the county has come to getting a Catskills casino.

"We're cautiously optimistic,'' she said.

The Mohawks want to build a 159,000-square foot complex with table games, video lottery terminals, poker games and bingo. Estimates are that nine million people would visit the casino annually, generating at least $500 million in yearly revenues.

The project would also bring 3,000 new jobs and $80 million in annual sales and benefits.

"The governor has told us time and time again that if it gets to his desk, and the feds approve it, then he would approve it,'' Leventoff said.

Pataki spokesman Michael McKeon said the governor was reviewing the federal decision and gave no timetable on a decision.

"The tribal council is quite confident'' of the governor's approval, said Rowena General, spokeswoman for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. "All indications have been that he's supportive.''

Leventoff said that without gambling, Sullivan County will never be on a level playing field with other resorts, such as Atlantic City and Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort Casino, owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe.

"Our hotels are competing for conventions with Atlantic City and Foxwoods because of the gambling,'' Leventoff said.

In fact, a New York state association of specialty advertising and gift dealers - a group that sells items with New York state themes - used to meet annually at the Concord and now holds its convention in Atlantic City, she said.

"A New York state convention that's held in New Jersey. Figure that out,'' she said.