OWEGO, N.Y. (AP) — Chris White didn't listen to the naysayers, the ones who said it would be foolish to start a business in New York's struggling Southern Tier, where antique shops peddle artifacts from a richer past and economic malaise hovers like fog over the Susquehanna River.
"Everyone said I was insane," said the former construction worker from Long Island, whose Redneck Boot and Western Wear shop in Owego was doing brisk business this past week. "We took a huge chance. But if you have a meager attitude, that's the kind of life you're going to lead. We need small businesses here, not just liquor stores and antique shops."
The Southern Tier, a broad swath of south-central New York nestled against Pennsylvania, was once home to big factories and high-tech manufacturing. Most closed long ago, taking jobs and population with them.
Now, plans to expand a racetrack and slot parlor into a full-scale resort casino with 1,000 new jobs are generating a glimmer of hope, though many here say it will take a lot more than gambling to make up for what was lost here.
"I'm sure more people will come if we get a casino, but I don't know how many," said John Ghinger, 81, of Johnson City. "We lost a lot of paychecks."
Binghamton, the area's largest community, once earned the nickname "Parlor City" because of all the fancy homes owned by wealthy capitalists. The first modern flight simulator was invented here, and in their heyday, IBM, military contractors and the Endicott-Johnson shoe company employed tens of thousands. But government contracts dried up, factories moved out and between 1980 and 2005, manufacturing jobs in Binghamton dropped more than 55 percent.
The loss of industry and years of perceived indifference in Albany took their toll. A Gallup survey published last year ranked Binghamton dead last of 189 American metropolitan areas when it comes to civic optimism, with only 36.5 percent of respondents saying life in their city is getting better. Binghamton had 80,000 souls in 1950 and has 46,000 today. That's one reason the city's unemployment rate of 5.4 percent in August was only slightly higher than the state's 5.2 percent rate, despite thousands of lost jobs. People have left.
"We raise children, we educate them, and then they can't find jobs," former Broome County executive Barbara Fiala, now a candidate for the state Senate, said in her campaign office in a once-grand downtown bank building that's now mostly vacant. "The region must work to retain existing businesses while attracting new ones — small, medium and large. We didn't get into this position overnight. It's going to take time."
Local leaders hope Tioga Downs' plan to expand into a full casino, complete with a 161-room hotel, new restaurants and a concert venue, will draw tourists while creating new jobs and generating tax revenue. Tioga's plan was endorsed by state gambling regulators on Wednesday, after an initial rejection last year was met with an uproar that prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ask for a do-over.
The very same day Tioga's initial application was rejected in favor of three casino projects in other regions in the state, Cuomo's administration announced a ban on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, known as fracking, a process that many here thought might transform the region, which sits atop the north edge of the productive Marcellus Shale formation.
The twin disappointments outraged many and prompted talk in the Southern Tier of seceding from New York to join Pennsylvania, which allows fracking.
Tioga resubmitted its application this year when bidding was reopened for a fourth available casino license, this one limited to the Southern Tier. No other contenders offered proposals. Tioga owner Jeff Gural plans to start construction soon and hopes table games could be open six months after the state Gaming Commission formally awards the license.
The existing facility, about 30 miles west of Binghamton in the small town of Nichols, just a few miles north of Pennsylvania, and Gural and local leaders hope to lure more gamblers from that state — and keep New York gamblers closer to home. Projections indicate the facility will generate $32 million in government revenue.
"It's a shot in the arm. But it's not the silver bullet that's going to solve our financial woes," said Binghamton Mayor Richard David, who is more hopeful about a state economic development competition announced by Cuomo that will pit seven state regions against one another for three $500 million awards.
With new casinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and elsewhere, gambling has become less lucrative for elected leaders looking to generate revenue without raising taxes.
But Kevin Law, chairman of the state Gaming Facility Location Board, which endorsed Tioga's bid, said the "scope of the project is reasonable in relation to the potential market."
Paul and Kathy Haniszewski stopped by Tioga on Wednesday while driving from Pennsylvania back to their home near Buffalo. They planned to play the slots and grab a meal at the buffet.
"It's all over now," Paul Haniszewski said of gambling in the Northeast. "But I'm sure it will help. It's jobs, something for people to come here to do. A hotel? Concerts? Why not?"