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Double down: Lone competitor for Southern Tier casino license takes a second shot

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NICHOLS, New York — The race for the last upstate casino license has just one runner — a blunt-talking real estate tycoon trying his luck for a second time in New York as he seeks another casino in New Jersey.

Tioga Downs owner Jeff Gural learned he was the sole applicant for a Southern Tier casino license Monday, the day he turned 73.

"A nice birthday present," he said.

The state board that rejected his bid during the initial round last year could do it again, but Gural is betting on his improved proposal. Also, the solo bid leaves state officials with the politically sticky choice of denying New York's economically struggling Southern Tier a casino — again — or choosing Tioga.

"I don't see how they could not, truthfully," Gural said during a recent interview. "The governor ... made it clear that he thought there should be a casino in the Southern Tier."

The new proposal includes $125 million for new facilities, including more hotel rooms and another restaurant. The first round proposal included $105 million for facilities, including a now-completed $15 million parking garage.

Tioga Downs Casino & Racing would swap out 800 video lottery terminals for 1,000 slot machines and 50 table games. Though Tioga sits by a rural stretch of highway west of Binghamton, a selling point is its proximity to the Pennsylvania line. Tioga competes for out-of-state customers with Mohegan Sun Pocono about two hours south.

The beefed up bid comes after Gural and another Binghamton-area bidder lost out in December to the $425 million Lago Resort & Casino in the Finger Lakes. Other regional licenses were recommended for the Catskills and Schenectady. The chairman of the state Gaming Facility Location Board, Kevin Law, said the choice for the Southern Tier/Finger Lakes license was essentially Lago or nothing.

Gural didn't hide his irritation, calling it an "idiotic decision." More importantly, many Southern Tier residents felt slighted too.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a celebratory visit to Binghamton in 2013 the day after New York voters approved expanded casino gambling, raising expectations of a local license. Worse, the no-casino news came on the same day people in this area, which sits atop untapped natural gas reserves, learned the administration planned to ban natural gas "fracking." The double-barreled economic blow helped fuel a local secession movement.

Cuomo asked the board to reopen Southern Tier casino bidding. The board complied, but made clear they stood by their round-one decisions. They expressed hope for some competition.

Instead, they have Gural, who is all-in on Northeast casinos. He and his partners have a 10 percent interest in the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem in Pennsylvania and he is involved in a proposed $1 billion casino in the New Jersey Meadowlands region near New York City as chairman of New Meadowlands Racetrack LLC.

He said it all stems from going to harness races growing up in Long Island. He started raising horses after becoming successful in real estate, then bought the abandoned Tioga track and Vernon Downs near Utica. His involvement with tracks led to casino proposals.

"This is a guy who owns two race tracks in central New York that were not exactly considered moneymakers and stuck with it and actually did a great job, so I'm not surprised that he's bullish on casinos where he has sites," said John Sabini, a consultant and past chairman of New York's Racing and Wagering Board.

With the Tioga proposal, Gural said he listened to board criticisms and "anything I could change, I changed." One thing that hasn't changed is Gural's sense that his contributions in New York — including $125 million in investments in two tracks — were ignored by the board.

"Somebody ... should have stepped up from the state and said, 'Wait a second, this guy invested a lot of money in upstate New York, in two depressed areas, he's given us a lot of money. Let's not go out of our way to make sure that he gets hurt,'" Gural said.

The board is expected to make its latest decision in the fall.

At this stage of his life, Gural said he's doing it for locals, some who approached him as he walked through Tioga on a recent day to shake his hand and thank him.

"I've got enough money. These people are really hurting," he said. "When you drive around here, it's heartbreaking."

PHOTO: In this Tuesday, July 7, 2015 photo, Jeff Gural, owner of Tioga Downs, poses at the racino in Nichols, N.Y. Gural has learned he's the sole applicant for a Southern Tier casino license. The solo bid leaves state officials with the politically sticky problem of choosing Tioga or denying New York’s economically struggling Southern Tier a casino for the second time. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
In this Tuesday, July 7, 2015 photo, Jeff Gural, owner of Tioga Downs, poses at the racino in Nichols, N.Y. Gural has learned he's the sole applicant for a Southern Tier casino license. The solo bid leaves state officials with the politically sticky problem of choosing Tioga or denying New York’s economically struggling Southern Tier a casino for the second time. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

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PHOTO: In this Tuesday, July 7, 2015 photo, patrons play video lottery terminals at Tioga Downs in Nichols, N.Y. Tioga Downs owner Jeff Gural has learned he's the sole applicant for a Southern Tier casino license. The solo bid leaves state officials with the politically sticky problem of choosing Tioga or denying New York’s economically struggling Southern Tier a casino for the second time. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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