TYRE — Shortly before 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, the ceremonial first roll of the dice at del Lago Resort & Casino will take place. Many involved with the more than year-long project are hoping the dice show lucky sevens, considered a sign of good things to come.
Then, the doors of the $440 million facility on Route 414 will open for the first time.
Wilmorite founder and del Lago Director Tom Wilmot Sr., his son and Wilmorite President Paul “P.J.” Wilmot and del Lago Resort & Casino General Manager Jeff Babinski sat down Jan. 18 to talk about the facility.
The casino, eateries and entertainment venue are slated to open Wednesday, while the hotel, spa, parking garage and some other amenities are earmarked to begin operations later this year.
As the finishing touches are being put on the casino portion, the trio answered questions about the project.
FLT — Can you explain the Wilmot family’s interest and their corporate interest in gaming and casinos? How far back does it go and why? Did you actively support voter approval of the statewide referendum in November 2013 allowing gaming?
TOM — It’s a long story, but going back to the late ’90s, we were saying the shopping mall market had matured and we would not be building a lot of enclosed malls in the future. We stumbled into looking into a native gaming project in Bridgeport, Conn. Connecticut casinos were in their early stages and had done very well. That’s what started our interest.
That tribal casino never happened because they never got federal recognition, only state. That piqued our interest in an industry that was exciting. We built a casino for a tribe in Oklahoma and began looking at upstate New York for 15 years.
On the state gaming referendum, we did not participate in advocating for its passage, but once it passed, that triggered new interest. We identified this site and put it under purchase contract.
FLT — Why was this site in Tyre chosen for the facility?
TOM — The thing we looked for was a site with great access. We knew thousands of cars a day were driving by on the Thruway. All they had to do was make a left and a right turn off the Thruway exit to get to this site.
Also, it was a very buildable site. It has no wetlands or endangered species that can tie up a project for decades. The location is halfway between Rochester and Syracuse, close to Canada. It was in a slim part of the Native American exclusivity zones on each side. It’s close to two Thruway exits. Looking at a map, almost anyone would see this as the center of a big market.
FLT — What are your thoughts on the concerns raised by opponents, such as changing the rural character of the town, problem gambling, noise and traffic, and how they were addressed. Were they dismissed or did you understand the concerns?
P.J. — The impact statement indicated the impacts would be minimal. ... The exit and roads were widened to minimize impacts. We don’t see huge impacts on the town’s rural character. There are farms in the immediate area that will continue to be farms.
TOM — Hopefully, people will see there will be some benefits of selling products here directly. There is generally not a lot of noise with a casino. The only impact we saw was traffic, and road improvements make getting in and out relatively easy.
P.J. — Strategically, we went north of the Thruway. The majority of traffic heads south off the Thruway. This makes less of an impact.
FLT — What you see on the site today, two weeks from its opening, is it what you envisioned it would be?
TOM — From the first drawings we saw to see it in reality, it’s very close to looking how I envisioned it.
P.J. — I agree. I’m very happy with what I see. The exterior is identical to what was proposed to the state Gaming Commission.
TOM — The interior is even better than I imagined. The finish is great. I’m surprised at how well it turned out. For a regional casino, this is as good looking as any I’ve seen.
JEFF — As we phase out of construction into operations, all parties who’ve looked at this are amazed. The interior is ideal for guests, who will easily see where everything is located. It’s not a far walk to all amenities and services without meandering all over. It’s easy to figure your way around. Standing in the center of the floor, you can see it all. From an operations standpoint, it’s well laid out.
FLT — What are your thoughts moving forward once the casino opens?
TOM — Obviously, we hope it does well. The first week or 10 days will likely see it somewhat overwhelming. It will be a big test for Jeff and the staff. We expect to do $260 million in gaming revenue or more. There will be some unknowns at the start. We’ve done our research and studies and looked at studies by independent firms. Jeff’s company did one too. Our test-market data is all within 10 or 15 percent of each other, so hopefully, we’ll be all right.
FLT — How will problem gambling issues be addressed?
JEFF — We have a very rigorous program and policies for all team member training to go through to identify people with problems and get them into intervention to seek help. There are resources here. We will be on top of it. We pay for two counselors who work for the county.
FLT — What are plans for opening day?
TOM — At 10 a.m., we will invite the media in for interviews and a formal ribbon-cutting. I will thank everyone who worked on the project, keeping that to a minimum. I will thank supporters, and the ribbon-cutting will be at 10:30. We’ll do the ceremonial first throw of the dice and then we’ll open the doors to the public. There will also be tours for the media.
P.J. — I think a lot of people are looking forward to seeing it for the first time. I think there’s a sense of anticipation. I want to see their faces.
JEFF — We’re looking for the “wow” factor. People will see an amazing property. After that, it’s 24-7 and we’re on our way.
FLT — Has employment met the announced goals of 1,800 construction workers and 1,800 permanent employees?
JEFF — We’re on target for both. A lot goes into what makes that up. We’re at 1,442 construction workers, with more to hire as we finish the hotel and spa. We have over 1,500 casino workers, and then we keep recruiting for the hotel, spa and restaurant. Those 300 will take us to the 1,800 mark.
FLT — What is the timetable for the opening of the hotel?
TOM — It’s still in mid-summer. Until then, the opening of the casino will benefit area hotels. Rooms have been blocked in at local hotels after meeting with them. Some are thinking of shuttles to get people back and forth. Room occupancy should be higher on weekends.
P.J. — Some workers are working 14- to 16-hour days. A lot of them are staying in local hotels rather than drive home.
FLT — How do you feel del Lago will be an economic engine for the town, county and Finger Lakes region?
TOM — The slot revenue split and the license split puts Tyre in a position they never thought they’d be in before legislation passed in November 2013. The people will enjoy no town taxes into the future. As to other development to grow the tax base, that’s up to Tyre. There should be opportunities, possibly hotels and restaurants. It’s up to them. We can only speak to our desire to have our guests have the best possible experience. If that gets people from out of town to enjoy the lakes and other things the area offers, hopefully they will come back again.
It will be interesting to see how much business grows from 10-20 miles from this building. Jobs are the key. The jobs we offer are a lot for such a small area. Not all workers will come from this county.
I’ve had construction workers thank me. They’ve not had a full 12 months of employment in years.
JEFF — Adding the tourism component, we hope to be close to 100 percent hotel occupancy. The local hotels should see a jump as well and people staying longer.
FLT — Are you optimistic del Lago will be a success and why?
TOM — We’ve invested $440 million in it. That’s a lot of money. If it’s not a success, I’ll probably jump off the roof (laughs). It’s a great market, close to 1.5 million people. It’s the closest casino and, based on demographics, if we do the right job this place should really hum.
P.J. — As we deliver a good experience and word spreads, people interested in gaming should come in high numbers. Forty-thousand cars a day drive by here. The Finger Lakes draws a million visitors a year. Given that vision, the potential is tremendous.