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Empire City owners hopeful about becoming a full-gaming casino

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Tim Rooney Jr., general counsel for Empire City Casino in Yonkers.

Upstate New York communities are vying for the opportunity to become gambling destinations since Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State address last month announced plans to build three casinos to boost tourism in economically struggling upstate regions.

At Empire City Casino in Yonkers, however, owners hope to persuade Cuomo and a state commission that will select casino sites to allow the Yonkers Avenue racetrack and slot machines operation to expand into a full-gaming facility.

A member of the Rooney family, owners of Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway since 1972, recently said the expansion would make good business sense and create several hundred hotel, casino and retail jobs. “We think a phase one expansion, which would be the full gaming hotel and some retail, would mean an additional 700 jobs immediately, not including construction jobs,” said Tim Rooney Jr., general counsel for Empire City.

During a recent walkthrough of the newly opened portion of the Yonkers ‘racino,’ Rooney spoke about the potential Empire City has to becoming a full-gaming facility. The newest addition is part of the $50 million expansion project that has been the company’s priority for the last 18 months.

Cuomo’s proposal to legalize gambling in the state requires passage of a constitutional amendment by the state legislature and approval by New York voters in a ballot referendum.

As an already established gambling destination, Rooney noted, Empire City would be able to expand in a matter of months, avoiding the more extended approval and building process that comes with developing a virgin site.

Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway is the city’s largest private employer with 1,200 union employees, and plans to add 200 jobs when the current construction project is completed this year.

Rooney said a full casino at Empire City would draw customers from the epicenter of tourism in Manhattan. “You have a 100-acre facility here 15 miles from Times Square,” he said. “If you’re looking to tap into the 50 million visitors that come to the city every year, we think this makes a lot more sense rather than two hours upstate.”

Rooney estimated 12,000 people visit Empire City on any given weekday and daily attendance jumps to 25,000 visitors on weekends. Most come from southern Westchester County and New York City.

The current 66,000-square-foot expansion project employs 100 construction workers. A new wing has added 680 games, most of which are penny slot machines. Two new restaurants, Pinch and Dan Rooney’s, will be completed in the final phase and employ a total of 200 workers. Two bowling alleys and a cocktail lounge also will be added.

At Pinch, “All 100 tap beers are based out of New York – a beer library,” said Brian Ingram, general manager of the restaurants. “The beer program is very unique. We’ll have pour-your-own tap beer at the restaurant” with the taps at the customer’s table. Dan Rooney’s will serve a menu of Irish beers.

Rooney said construction was delayed by damage from Hurricane Sandy. “It took a couple of months” to replace and repair damaged façade pieces and glass, he said.

Empire City generates more than $300 million a year for the state, said Rooney. Empire City spokeswoman Taryn Duffy added that over the past five years, New York has taken in approximately $3.2 billion for education from gaming, and half of that money comes from the family-owned Yonkers racino.

Rooney said the revenue Empire City generates is a good reason Cuomo should consider it for a full-gaming casino site. “We’re confident at the end of the day that we’re going to be in the mix, and this property, as successful as it is now, will continue to be,” he said.

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