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Best of Clare Fitzgerald

Gaming Guru

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Del Lago Resort & Casino gets the details right

6 February 2017

A dealer starts one of the first blackjack games to be played at del Lago, just outside the high limit room.

A dealer starts one of the first blackjack games to be played at del Lago, just outside the high limit room.

WATERLOO, N.Y. – By 9 o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, 1 February, the line in front of the casino was already spilling out into the parking lot. Boisterous New Yorkers chatted among themselves as they waited in the cold February sun. The casino wasn't scheduled to open until 10:30. A thin crust of last night's snow turned the flat ground around del Lago Resort & Casino into an undifferentiated expanse of white.

Inside, it was summery, with light stonework and ornamental lemon trees dominating the interior. A smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd, a mix of people who had been involved in the casino project — from local officials to engineers — packed into the food court, chatting and hugging and smiling at each other with the sort of pride that comes only at the fruition of a project that has been a long time coming.

"Today is a major victory for Seneca County," said Jeff Babinski, executive vice president and general manager, who was emceeing the opening ceremonies. "It's very exciting—I literally have goosebumps; I haven't stopped smiling since this morning." He acknowledged a number of town, county and state officials in attendance, emphasizing the community nature of the project, and gave a special thanks to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who earned a resounding round of applause.

"The most important thing for us, for the last year, for me, has been to be part of the community," Babinski continued.

Ron McGreevy, the Tyre town supervisor, extended "a special thanks to the thousands of hardworking men and women in the building trades whose daily efforts made this wonderful project a reality."

"We have faced many challenges over the past four years, and I wanted to say that I'm especially proud of the perseverance shown by our town and county officials," McGreevy said. "We would not be standing here today without the overwhelming and unwavering support of these dedicated men and women."

"Del Lago is providing the economic boost our area has so desperately needed," he continued. "We are already seeing the economic benefits del Lago is providing." McGreevy discussed several businesses that had opened or were planning on opening soon in the area, fulfilling a promise of low taxes and more jobs. "We envision a very bright future for Seneca County and the entire Finger Lakes," he concluded.

Brent Stevens, the co-chair of the casino, gave some backstory on the casino project. Developed by Peninsula Pacific and the Wilmont family, del Lago is the sixth property they have opened since they got into the gaming industry in 1997. The casino has created 1,500 jobs, not including the 200-300 people it expects to employ when the hotel opens in the summer. "For us, community pride, high customer service, and the notion that we will underpromise and overdeliver at every opportunity is at the forefront of how Peninsula Pacific has succeeded throughout our history," Stevens said. "We hope that you agree that the del Lago is another example of how the vision of this great community, combined with industry-leading expertise and good old-fashioned hard work, can make a dream turn into this reality."

Tom Wilmot, the other co-chair of del Lago, made a point of keeping his remarks brief, since "a number of you have been thanked twice already."

He also made a point of thanking the local building trades, saying, "We had over 1,400 craftsmen here during the construction—hardworking, great craftsmen, many of whom worked 90 consecutive days getting us to where we are today. And hopefully now they'll have a couple of days off before they complete the hotel."

"There's a new optimism for the economy of upstate New York," he said, by way of introducing the event's star speaker, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"Well, I don't know why you're here, but I'm here because I'm feeling lucky and I'm going to play the slots," Governor Cuomo joked. "I'm with them" — he indicated the casinogoers outside — "and I thought this was a great way to get to the front of the line."

After another round of thanking people, Cuomo embarked upon a love letter to economic development in upstate New York, situating del Lago within a larger, quintessentially all-American story of resilience and resourcefulness for the region.

"Today is about what can be," Cuomo declaimed. "Today is about seeing dreams come true; it's about seeing visions turn into reality. And as everybody knows, for many, many decades, upstate New York was the Land of No. It was a land of negativity. Businesses were leaving, people were leaving, there was nothing that was going to be done. There was a sense of hopelessness that the best was behind us, and the future didn't hold promise.

"And that fed on itself, and frankly, the state government was part of it. They weren't optimistic; they weren't energetic; they weren't engaged in upstate New York. And for many decades, we saw people leaving, we saw businesses leaving.

"But there were also people who saw great potential in upstate New York, and said 'We're not giving up.' And with the right help and the right assistance and the right investment and the right support, upstate New York has assets that no other state in the nation has. People like Brent Stevens, like Jeff Babinski, they've been all across the country. I was in the federal government; I worked with every state in the United States. No one has what we have in upstate New York. We didn't use it, we didn't develop it, we didn't market it — but nobody else had our natural assets. And what we said is, if we make the effort, if we make the investment, you're going to see upstate New York rise to the occasion.

"One of the big issues for us was gaming. Gaming could be done by every state — every state around us was doing gaming. But in upstate New York we couldn't do gaming. New Jersey could do gaming, Connecticut could do gaming, Massachusetts could do gaming — but we couldn't figure it out in New York. But we said, 'Yes, we can!'

"And it's hard, the way it was hard to get this building done in a year. It's always hard. We had to go through the legislature with two different acts — we had to get the legislature to act twice. That's like running the gauntlet twice, right? You go through it once, you come out with scars, they say you have to do it again. But we passed the legislation. We went to the people of the state and we passed the referendum, and today we are standing in a magnificent monument to how intelligent the decision was, how it's going to spur the economy — 1,500 jobs, the construction work that was done.

"And just as it was a negative synergy, now it's a positive synergy. Just as there was an era of decline, now you see an era of growth. And growth begets growth, and investment begets investment. You see it in the whole region. Rochester is now turning into the photonics center. The Finger Lakes' wine and beer industry is off the charts. In Syracuse, we redid Hotel Syracuse. New York State Fair just set an all-time record for attendance in the New York State Fair.

"All that upstate New York needed was exposure. Just seeing it, exposing it, started to drive the economy. And now all these pieces are feeding on each other. And the Finger Lakes wine and beer, and Watkins Glen, and del Lago are all going to have a virtuous cycle of success and work. We just had to get it started. We just had to take the first step. And you needed some courageous businessmen to believe, and to step up, and to invest and get it done.

"And that's what today is all about. And I really believe the best is yet to be — that the growth you're seeing now, all across upstate New York, is going to increase exponentially. So we are on our way. Let's cut this ribbon and let's get to those slot machines!"

There was a minor stampede as dozens of press crowded around the ribbon, jostling for position to get the best shot of Cuomo, Babinski and the other dignitaries as they wielded their oversize bronze scissors to cheers and applause.

By this point, it was nearly 10:45 a.m. and well past time to let in the crowd, which had swelled to fill much of the (now full) parking lot. With the doors opened, the first several dozen people crowded into the vestibule in front of the security checkpoint. Babinski gave a few welcoming words, to raucous cheering and clapping. The first woman let in through the security checkpoint gave him a big hug.

And then the crowd was let loose, slot machines flashing and jingling as they sprang into use, the line for the players' club growing into a crowd of its own. Players debated the pros and cons of trying to get a card or waiting until the line had died down and going right to the machines. (A lot of folks picked the machines.) Dealers in neat teal uniforms stood smiling behind blackjack tables, decks of cards neatly fanned out in front of them, greeting customers as they sidled up to play the casino's first table games.

Local ceramics manufacturer MacKenzie-Childs brought its distinctive style even to the restrooms.

Local ceramics manufacturer MacKenzie-Childs brought its distinctive style even to the restrooms.

Many players followed Babinski, Stevens, Wilmot, McGreevy and the small army of photographers to the craps tables, where McGreevy somehow found enough elbow room to throw the dice twice. The dealer announced that the numbers were 5 and 10.

By the time the casino had been open for half an hour, nearly every corner of it was teeming with customers. Four of the 12 tables in the cozy, red-upholstered poker room had games going on when I passed by. Women examined the checker-patterned china and local wines for sale at the distinctive MacKenzie-Childs store off the food court. A few unselfconscious souls were already hanging out at the dimly lit bar in the Vine, a nightclubby restaurant and entertainment center that seats 2,400 and features dramatic French Gothic-style stonework.

No part of the casino, no matter how mundane its purpose, seems to have been neglected by meticulous designers. The designated smoking areas — technically outdoors, since New York is a nonsmoking state, but with enough wall and roof to shelter smokers from the elements — coalesce around arrays of closely assembled glass fire pits, like ice cube trays with flames flickering across their openings. The farmer's market buffet, which showcases locally grown food, has gently twisted its cafeteria-style layout into something that more resembles a charming brick-oven pizzeria, or possibly a charming brick pizza oven. Aurora-based domestic arts manufacturer MacKenzie-Childs had been put in charge of outfitting the restrooms, which feature opulent chandeliers and distinctive tilework.

Whether the casino will do all that it has promised to boost the economic fortunes of the Finger Lakes region remains to be seen. But the care that has clearly been put into the del Lago resort, reflected so clearly in its locally crafted luxury, make it a must-see stop for anyone who finds themselves in the Seneca Falls area.
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.