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Bad local economies can be selling point as New York considers where to locate upstate casinos

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BINGHAMTON, New York — Developers competing to build a casino near Binghamton claim the city has been listed among the most depressed, obese, pessimistic and fastest-shrinking in the nation.

It may seem odd for backers of the planned Traditions resort to highlight local lowlights to the state officials who will soon choose upstate casino sites, but a big goal of New York's gambling expansion is to bring jobs to upstate areas that need them the most. Casino applicants like Traditions are promoting not only their ability to make money with a local casino, but also how badly it is needed.

It's an argument that resonates in New York's Southern Tier.

"The economy is so depressed around here, anything is a plus," Steven Shaffer, owner of Pepe's Bar-B-Q, said as he grilled chickens under a tent on a careworn Binghamton city street. "That's how bad it is around here."

The Binghamton area boomed in the 20th century as IBM evolved in this area from a maker of punch-clocks into a high-tech powerhouse and waves of immigrants came for work, many to make shoes at the Endicott Johnson factory. The old story is that newly arrived immigrants would ask officials "Which way E.J.?"

Back then, a job represented lifetime security and neighborhoods thrived, recalled 68-year-old lifelong resident Diane Stento, who interned for IBM in high school when her father worked at E.J.

Many of those old businesses have left the area or dramatically scaled back. As in many upstate areas, the economy slowed. Despite bright spots such as Binghamton University, this city of 47,000 has a long-term estimated poverty rate of 31 percent, about double the statewide average, according to the Census. The county's monthly unemployment rate has hovered around statewide rates this year.

"I talk to my grandchildren now, and sometimes apologize that they're growing up in this era," said Stento, who supports a Traditions casino as a way to generate jobs.

A state commission could award up to four casinos licenses in the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes region and two other upstate regions within weeks. An area's economic need is expected to be weighed along with the casino's ability generate revenue, resulting in interesting dynamics.

PHOTO: In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 photo, Trinna Iacovelli, of Ithaca, N.Y., sits outside the gaming area at Tioga Downs, in Nichols, N.Y.  New York regulators expected to soon hand out upstate casino licenses are looking no only at where gambling can make the most money, but where it can help the most.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 photo, Trinna Iacovelli, of Ithaca, N.Y., sits outside the gaming area at Tioga Downs, in Nichols, N.Y. New York regulators expected to soon hand out upstate casino licenses are looking no only at where gambling can make the most money, but where it can help the most. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

In the Hudson Valley, casino backers in the struggling areas of the Catskills argue they are more deserving than projects proposed for more prosperous areas closer to New York City in Orange County. In the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes, three applicants competing for a license in different locations each argue they would provide needed help to their communities.

Tioga Downs, which rises out of rural fields right off the region's major highway about a half hour west of Binghamton, already draws gamblers to its video lottery machines and wants to expand to a full casino.

Owner Jeffrey Gural said Tioga's rural location at the bottom of a triangle formed by Elmira, Ithaca and Binghamton is an advantage. It will employ people from Binghamton and other areas, he said, and Tioga complements tourist attractions such as Finger Lakes wineries, the Corning Museum of Glass and Watkins Glen racetrack.

"If you look at the region, we're kind of right where you'd want it to be: right in the middle," Gural said.

Traditions would be in Johnson City, just outside of Binghamton at a hilltop hotel IBM once used for lodging and conventions. Developer Bill Walsh stressed that their casino would be in the heart of the community it would help. The Walsh family sees their casino helping Binghamton the way a casino helped bring jobs to the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area, about 90 minutes south.

"We're never going to back to the days when industry carried this town, those days are gone," Walsh said. "So we have to look at other revenue-generating opportunities and other ways to put people to work here."

The other regional contender, Lago, would be off the Thruway in the town of Tyre, roughly two hours north of the other two potential sites.

The geography in Seneca County is different, but the economic argument for a casino is similar. While this area benefits from Finger Lakes tourism, James Wilmot of the developer Wilmorite said in a phone interview that their casino would greatly help an area that also is disadvantaged.

Seneca County Board of Supervisors chairman Robert Hayssen agreed, saying that in the 64 years he has lived in the area he has watched manufacturers leave and looks forward to landing something big.

"We're in a blighted area, but we are adaptable," Hayssen said. "We've seen this downturn for the last 15 years."

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PHOTO: In this Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 photo, a man plays at a video lottery terminal at Tioga Downs, in Nichols, N.Y.  New York regulators expected to soon hand out upstate casino licenses are looking no only at where gambling can make the most money, but where it can help the most.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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