Casino may be a major player in Catskills comeback

$500 million center may be in the works for Sullivan County, N.Y.

February 28, 2000|By Charles V. Bagli | Charles V. Bagli,New York Times News Service

MONTICELLO, N.Y. -- Gene Barbanti, a real estate broker from New Jersey, moved to the Catskills 30 years ago and bought some land cheap, thinking that the Borscht Belt had nowhere to go but up.

Instead, the bungalow colonies and grand hotels where Danny Kaye, Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett once entertained vacationing New Yorkers died a lingering death over the next three decades. It left Sullivan County a depressed backwater, only 90 miles northwest of Manhattan.

But with the growing possibility of a $500 million casino opening in Monticello, Barbanti has emerged in the last year as the unofficial grand marshal of the great Sullivan County land rush. He recently sold the 236-acre Shawanga Lodge property in Wurtsboro and the old Laurels resort on Sackett Lake in Thompson and is completing the sale of an 800-acre tract in Wurtsboro Hills. All in all, well-connected investors and developers have snapped up more than $40 million worth of wooded land, dormant hotels and golf courses in 10 major deals over the last year, with plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in resorts, second-home communities and attractions.

"This is not your grandfather's Catskills anymore," Barbanti said at his office in Liberty, where storefront after storefront sits hauntingly empty. "This is a place waiting to be rediscovered and I think we're on the threshold."

Hopes for a Catskill revival have fallen flat in the past. But with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt likely to decide by January or February whether to approve a casino proposed by the St. Regis Mohawks next to the Monticello Raceway, more money and muscle are betting on it than ever before. And as developers continue to propose ambitious, big-dollar projects, the future of the Catskills seems increasingly tied to two factors. The first is whether the region will get casino gambling. The second is whether it can come back without it.

For decades, gambling has been held up as a tantalizing cure-all for the region's economic doldrums. But now many advocates, though not all, expect Babbitt to approve the tribe's casino application and send it to Gov. George Pataki for a final decision. Although the governor has not indicated what he will do, Pataki thinks casinos "make economic sense in traditional resort areas like the Catskills," said his spokesman, Michael McKeon.

A revival would be the third wave of prosperity to wash over the Catskills. From the 1890s until World War I, the cool mountains and lakes of the area were a favorite respite from the city's sweltering heat and tuberculosis for Italian and Irish immigrants.

During the golden age of the Catskills, from 1940 to the mid-1960s, however, the region became a vacation haven for Jewish immigrants who flocked to as many as 500 hotels that offered tennis, swimming, elaborate social programs and nearly legendary nightclub entertainment. But with the advent of inexpensive airfares and the popularity of European vacations, the Catskills slowly lost their luster. Today, only a handful of hotels are left.

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