10/11/16 – The Journal News

Yonkers’ Empire City celebrating 10 years

YONKERS – Beverly Butler has one big reason why she prefers coming to Empire City’s casino at Yonkers Raceway instead of going to a closer one in New York City.

“They give out more money here,” said Butler, a probation officer who lives in Brooklyn and has come to Empire City for years. “You gotta go where the money is.”

As Empire City celebrates a decade of operations this month, state statistics show that gamblers throughout the region share Butler’s affection. Empire City’s revenues are higher than ever, even though the competing Resorts World casino opened in Queens five years ago amid concerns that it would lead to the Yonkers casino’s decline.

Instead, Empire City is getting about 8 million visitors a year and the number keeps growing.

“When Resorts World (in Queens) opened, we could have lost up to 35 percent of our business because a big part comes from Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens. We’re thrilled to know that we haven’t lost all that,” said Empire City spokeswoman Taryn Duffy. “People love this property.”

In the 10 years of operations since it opened on Oct. 11, 2006, gamblers have wagered more than $71 billion at the casino, which only offers video lottery terminals overseen by the New York Lottery. The casino, originally devised as a way to help the state’s horse harness racing industry survive, has given about $196 million in host-city payments to Yonkers on top of property taxes and has pumped more than $2.7 billion into state education.

Empire City is Yonkers’ largest private employer with a $45 million annual payroll going to about 1,350 employees who work for 14 different unions.

“I believe it was a great investment and it created a lot of jobs and a lot of new revenues and will continue to boost the image of the city,” said Spano, who estimated that Yonkers collects about $40 million to $50 million a year from Yonkers Raceway through host-city fees, property taxes, sales taxes and other payments.

Spano said when he was a state assemblyman pushing for video lottery terminals at Yonkers Raceway in the late 1990s, there were many naysayers. There was no good alternative to letting Yonkers Raceway fail, he said.

“We would have probably had another mall,” Spano said. “It’s good to have retail, but you need to have that mix. Not having that historic destination for people, I think that would have been bad.”

Empire City is controlled by Tim Rooney, Sr. and the family-owned business has invested more than $400 million in the property since Yonkers Raceway got permission to open the casino. About $50 million of the investment has happened since the Resorts World casino opened as part of an effort to keep customers happy.

Barbara Boniello, a nurse, drove from Yorktown on Columbus Day to visit. Boniello said she loves to gamble and visits Empire City once every two or three months. Empire City is celebrating its anniversary in October with a number of promotions.

“I think the restaurants are good,” said Boniello, who has noticed all the upgrades to the venue since it opened. “All the people that I deal with at the different booths, they’re all really pleasant.”

Not all of Empire City’s efforts have been hits. In 2013, the casino opened Pinch American Grill, an Alain Ducasse concept restaurant that featured 100 New York craft beers on tap, iPad menus and a casually hip setting.

Pinch didn’t last long and eventually Empire City turned the restaurant into an events space called the Red Room that now serves as a rental venue for weddings, private parties and corporate events.

“Alain Ducasse speaks to the (Rooney) family’s ability to take a risk and see what works,” Duffy said. “Having four restaurants in a property this size ended up not being necessary and there was such a demand for a private events space that we felt flipping to a private event space was the best use.”

Soon Empire City will face a new challenge. The Montreign Resort Casino is under construction in the Sullivan County town of Thompson, less than a three-hour drive from Yonkers.

Besides a casino, Montreign will have a 390-room hotel, a banquet hall, conference rooms, restaurants, a spa and a salon. When state officials approved full-blown gambling at Montreign and three other upstate casinos, they decided not to award any gambling licenses downstate until the new casinos are open and have time to establish themselves.

Duffy said Empire City’s next step is to compete against Montreign and other regional casinos with full-service gambling.

“We anticipate applying for and obtaining a full-gaming license once they become available downstate,” she said.