A few years ago, Howe Caverns owner Emil Galasso hoped to build a dinosaur theme park on the grounds of his Schoharie County tourist attraction. Now he’s hoping to bring in a casino instead.
Late last week, Galasso announced his intention to market a 330-acre section of his Howe Caverns land in the town of Cobleskill to developers who are trying to land one of four casino licenses the state will grant across upstate New York.
“At first when people told me to propose a casino at Howe Caverns, I laughed,” Galasso said. “I figured Saratoga Springs had it tied up.”
When that city recently voted to oppose siting of a casino there, reversing an earlier measure in favor, he got to thinking.
“We have a lot to recommend a casino right here,” he said.
Specifically, he said his land is shovel-ready. Four years ago he wanted to use parts of a 330-acre lot bordering the 156-foot-deep cavern to build a hotel and theme park. The plan included Jurassic Park-style animatronics, but according to Christopher Tague, dinosaurs just didn’t show the sort of financial promise originally hoping for.
“We just put it on hold for a while,” he said.
Tague works for Galasso at his other local venture, Cobleskill Stone Products. He also works in development at Howe Caverns. He said casinos are safer than theme parks in financial terms.
“We’re not looking to get into the casino business,” he said. “We want to keep the cavern separate. We’d just sell or lease the land.”
While the animatronics might never arrive, the dinosaur park plans paved the way for a possible casino. All the necessary environmental studies are complete. This summer, a multimillion-dollar water and sewer project headed out of Cobleskill will reach the Howe Caverns site.
“A developer could just go and get a building permit and start working,” Galasso said.
Galasso made his pitch Friday at a meeting with Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, and representatives of U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook. The upsides, he said, are clear, but local politicians are withholding judgment for the time being.
“I’m honestly still up in the air on this one,” said Cobleskill town Supervisor Leo McAllister.
Last month the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors voted to oppose siting of a casino in the county. McAllister voted with the majority, but said he didn’t know of the Howe Caverns proposal at the time.
At a meeting Friday, the board is set to hold a revote on the issue following a pitch from Galasso. McAllister isn’t sure how he’ll vote this time.
On the one hand, he said, a casino could bring a lot of tax revenue and jobs to his town and the county as a whole. On the other hand, casinos bring with them some negatives.
“Casinos just move money from one pocket to another,” he said.
Very little actually gets created, which casts worry over industry stability, he explained. Then there are worries about infrastructure. Repairing roads ground down by extra area traffic is the county’s responsibility.
“Between the roads and the cops,” said Board Chairman Tony Van Glad, R-Gilboa, “it’ll probably be a wash.”
But he too is undecided on the issue.
“I voted against it the first time,” he said. “Now I don’t know.”
McAllister expects the board to OK a possible casino project Friday, just to move the process toward a public hearing. McAllister said he’ll vote for what county residents seem to want.
Proposals for a casino have already been offered in Schenectady, Rensselaer, Montgomery, Saratoga and Albany counties. Should the board give Galasso a supportive vote, Schoharie County could be another site in the running.
“It’s just a pie-in-the-sky dream,” Galasso said. “A dream of mine and a few politicians, but if a developer is interested, it could be more than that.”
Right now developers are scoping out the Capital Region for locations with the best chances at landing a state casino license.
There are four developers in talks about the Howe Caverns site. Galasso hopes to hook one of them in the near future.
“There’s not a lot in Schoharie County,” he said. “Our talent drives to Albany to work. I’d love to bring jobs here.”