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Insiders: Howe Caverns Proposal Plagued by Missteps

Written By Editor on 12/19/14 | 12/19/14

Even before the December 17th decision to not accept the Howe Caverns Casino proposal, there have been rumblings about how the project was pieced together. By interviewing local officials, former Howe Caverns employees, and those involved in the push we have been able to piece together part of why the Howe Caverns project was not accepted.

The fight began unexpectedly. The Board of Supervisors rejected a motion to accept a local casino and most locals seemed against it. Just several days later a political earthquake hit the area, with the announcement that Howe Caverns would be pursuing the process. The County Board swiftly reversed itself under pressure from Cobleskill Stone Vice President and County Republican Vice Chair Chris Tague. With the Howe Caverns name attached to the project, the public also backed the project.

April and May seemed to pick up momentum for the project. Howe Caverns anted up $1 million for the gaming application, got our endorsement, said that it had an environmental study done early, and received the unanimous backing of the Cobleskill Town Board.

However, many of the early moves seemed to get the horse before the cart. The early enthusiasm seemed to get the public relation effort ahead of the actual bread and butter of the project's inner workings. According to the State Gaming Commission, the actual proposal to the state didn't indicate a solid plan for how the casino would be funded. Second, multiple surrounding municipalities were not asked for opinions on the casino. Beyond this, deeper structural problems affected the project.

First, the naming of the Howe Caverns Casino owner dropped the ball. The potential owner, Michael Malik, received as much criticism as he did attention. His past involvement in domestic abuse, a ponzi scheme, and election fraud drew attention away from the project itself.

Beyond this, Howe Caverns' own strategy was confusing. Its failure to open its announced Dinosaur Park and Waterpark seemed to underscore larger plans without the funding or the logistics behind to finish them. Furthermore, a recent drop in tourism and gutting of many employees highlighted an atmosphere of instability at the site. One former employee described the efforts as inexplicable.

Still, public support remained high. The project's backers seemed to switch their efforts from the gaming commission process to one of relying on public opinion. Howe Caverns would bus in supporters in t-shirts to every event, winning plaudits for effort. A powerful ad that some believed to be manipulative was launched.

This line of attack seemed to avoid questions about the project's profitability and feasibility. Concerns were regularly replaced with constant shouts of "IT'S OUR TIME," in person or on Facebook. Emails flew from at least one County agency supporting the project using a County email address. Furthermore, the project did not actually have the correct SEQR, as it was claimed earlier.

The project seemed to be relying on a local base of support. Cobleskill Stone Vice President Chris Tague became the public face of the project. He organized the moderately attended Fill the Hill event.

Tague's approach rallied the faithful but seemed heavy handed to some officials. Rather than reinforcing the underwriting or actuarial basis for a local casino, the emotion of Irene was used to support the project. Heavy backing from the County Planning Department and Alicia Terry seemed to indicate the casino's role as a potential savior of the local economy. A PR firm was hired and attention was paid to direct supporters to swamp news polls, but the underlying questions never seemed to receive answers.

By Wednesday the effort seemed to peter out. Sure, there were supporters in t-shirts at the Commission and scattered applause when Howe Caverns was mentioned in the opening statement, but the stone faced commissioners acted more like accountants than emotional cheerleaders for the project. At the end, one of the major concerns was that the Caverns did not complete a basic accounting for how the project would be funded. All of the other work hung on this major error.
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