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Gaming expert on del Lago casino's money woes: 'They made a mistake'

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Gaming expert on del Lago casino's money woes: 'They made a mistake'

TYRE, NY -- If the 13-month-old del Lago Resort & Casino can't make enough money to stay afloat, a national gaming expert says, there's a solution for that.

"It's called bankruptcy," said Clyde Barrow, a Texas college professor who has studied and written reports on the Upstate New York casino industry. "In business, you take a risk, you make a mistake, the solution is often to declare bankruptcy. They made a mistake."

Del Lago, which opened in February 2017 at State Thruway Exit 41 near Waterloo, seems to have lost its bet this week to win a financial bailout from state taxpayers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday rejected the idea of giving tax breaks to the struggling casino, as did many state lawmakers and other officials. Cuomo and lawmakers are in the midst of negotiations for a new state budget for the fiscal year that begins April 1.

Del Lago is not the only new Upstate casino in trouble. None of the four non Indian nation-owned casino that opened in the past 15 months is meeting the projections for earnings they gave the state when they bid for gaming licenses. (Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady also reportedly sought tax breaks from the state).

But del Lago seems to be in the worst shape. It fell about $100 million behind  its first-year estimate (a 44 percent shortfall, more than the other casinos). Its credit rating was downgraded to "negative" by Moody's Investor Service,  which also warned it may not be able to pay its debts.

If that's the case, Barrow said, the state is wise not get involved in lowering taxes or providing other help.

"Once the state gets involved in subsidizing business, everybody lines up at the trough," he said.

Del Lago's problems were "predictable," said Barrow, who warned in 2014 that the Seneca County casino would "cannibalize" the already crowded Upstate casino market. 

Barrow's predictions were almost spot on: Although del Lago estimated it would earn $263 million in gross gaming revenues in its first year, Barrow's estimate was $158.1 million. The actual figure: $147 million.

From its Feb. 1, 2017 opening through the middle of March 2018, de Lago's gross gaming revenues were $158.5 million, according to state Gaming Commission records. During that time, it paid $47.2 million in gaming taxes to the state and to local governments in its region. The casino pays 37 percent of its slot revenues and 10 percent of it table game revenues in taxes.

Del Lago's principal owner, Rochester developer Thomas Wilmot, was asking for a $14 million break on its taxes, according to one state senator. Wilmot said the casino is making enough money now to "pay our bills," but needed a break from the state for the long term.

A del Lago spokesman, meanwhile, blamed the casino's poor earnings forecast on a situation it says it couldn't have predicted: Last year, the Seneca Nation of Indians stopped making the payments it was sending to state and local governments on the three casinos it operates in western New York. The Senecas had been paying 25 percent of their slot revenues in gaming taxes. The situation has not been resolved.

Del Lago argues that part of the Senecas' tax savings, about $50 million, was used on marketing efforts to lure customers away from the Finger Lakes casino.

Barrow isn't buying it.

"They (del Lago) went into this with their eyes wide open," he said. "They knew there was competition with the Indian casinos."

The Cuomo administration endorsed the granting of new casino licenses in 2014 to give private developers the chance to compete with the Indian gaming operations. The four casinos made competitive bids to locate in areas not covered by existing gaming compacts with the Indian nations.

At the time, there were five Upstate Indian casinos, Since then, the Oneida Nation has added two smaller casinos in the region also served by its large Turning Stone Resort Casino.

In addition to del Lago and Rivers, the other new "Vegas-style" casinos authorized in recent years are Tioga Downs, a former harness track/slot venue west of Binghamton, and Resorts World Catskills, the largest of the new gaming venues located near Monticello. It opened last month.

Upstate is also home to seven harness track/slot venues known as "racinos."

Barrow and other experts have long warned of a crowded and even saturated market. He also argues the state was wrong to choose Upstate as the location for new casinos. The state, he said, should have looked to expand in the much more densely populated New York City area.

"They (the new casinos) overestimated the revenues in this market," Barrow said. "Again, that's their mistake."

This scenario is not unprecedented, Barrow said. Other areas like northern   Mississippi, have seen casinos fail. In such cases, bankruptices can be a solution, especially for a a casino, like del Lago, that has debt issues.

"The consumers won't notice if it closes and reopens under new owners," Barrow said. "If someone new takes over for maybe 8 or 10 cents on the dollar, then they can perhaps operate at a profit."

Don Cazentre writes about Upstate NY casinos for NYup.com, syracuse.com and The Post-Standard. Reach him at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or follow him at NYup.com, on Twitter or Facebook.

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