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Resorts World Catskills has a new president. How he's betting big to make it a success

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ALBANY - When Bob DeSalvio was growing up in northern New Jersey, he remembers fondly driving his grandfather to the Catskills and watching the horse races at Monticello Raceway.

The grandstand at the venerable track was filled with bettors and racing fans.

"Back then, it was night racing in the summer and the place was packed," DeSalvio, 63, recalled Tuesday.

Now DeSalvio is returning to the Catskills hoping to pack another major venue in the region: the struggling Resorts World Catskills casino.

DeSalvio was named Monday as president of Genting New York State, a new role for the 40-year veteran of the casino industry aimed at reviving the Monticello-area casino and expanding the massive Resorts World New York City casino in Queens.

Genting is betting big on DeSalvio, hoping he can turn around the fortunes of the $1 billion upstate casino which had $26 million loss in the third quarter alone this year.

The first goal, he said: Get more people in the door.

"I am convinced that this is a trial and visitation issue that we can address through marketing and promotions and that when we get them there, we have a very high probability of success that they’ll stick with the property," he said in an interview with the USA TODAY Network New York in Albany.

Building Resorts World Catskills after two years in operation

February will mark two years since the gleaming 18-story hotel and casino opened off Route 17 in Sullivan County with expectations that would revive the once-booming tourist region of the state.

But the casino owned by locally based and publicly traded Empire Resorts immediately failed to meet revenue projections and struggled to lure New York City tourists up to the Catskills.

That led to a cascade of subsequent moves. Empire Resorts last April closed its 1,000 video-lottery parlor at Monticello Raceway, saying the operation was merely pulling customers from the full-scale casino down the road.

And in the following months, Empire Resorts suggested that bankruptcy could be on the horizon.

Instead, though, the company sold itself in August to Kien Huat Realty and Genting Malaysia. Kien Huat already owned about 85% of the casino backed by gambling magnate K.T. Lim, and repeatedly added more money to keep the place afloat.

Lim is the chairman of Genting, which already owned Resorts World New York City — the highest grossing slots casino in the world.

More: Resorts World Catskills: Five things to know about the new casino

Now it will be up to DeSalvio, fresh off opening the Encore Boston Harbor earlier this year for Wynn Resorts, to get Resorts World Catskills on more solid footing.

He offered an optimistic assessment, saying he will look to create synergies between the two New York properties and that means trying to lure downstate gamblers upstate with new promotions and incentives starting Jan. 1.

"My mission, and I say immediately, because it’s immediately, is work on increasing visitations to the property," DeSalvio said. "It’s the single most important thing we can do now is drive more traffic through that building."

More: Monticello Raceway's casino is closing: What it means for horse racing and Resorts World Catskills

Next steps for Resorts World in the Catskills and New York City

DeSalvio's challenge will be twofold: Lift the prospects for Resorts World Catskills and position Resorts World New York City toward a full-scale gaming licence to add table games and sports betting.

Genting and Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, owned by MGM Resorts, have been eager to push New York to lift a moratorium on new casinos that is in place until 2023 as a way to aid the growth of four upstate casinos, including the Catskills one.

The casino giants were unsuccessful this year in getting the ban lifted, and now the state Gaming Commission is undertaking a study on the future of casinos in New York — which signals the state may be willing to consider changing its stance.

More: Why this quiet decision on the future of New York casinos may have a big impact

The upstate casinos are the only ones who can offer sports betting, but only on site. All the New York casinos would like to offer sports betting, especially mobile betting that is currently barred.

DeSalvio said he will let the state study run its course. A first draft is expected in April.

"We think we are positioning the property for the future," he said of the Queens casino.

"Of course, we’d love to see the full gaming options be available to our customers, but the way to do that is to let the Legislature really come to that conclusion that it’s the right thing for New York."

More: New York’s casinos: Five new developments you should know about

DeSalvio has another chip to help Resorts World Catskills.

In June, the state Legislature agreed to let Empire Resorts reopen its video-lottery machines that were at Monticello Raceway in Orange County, possibly near the sprawling Woodbury Common outlet mall.

DeSalvio said it is too soon to say how that plan might develop.

"We’re going through right now an evaluation process," he said. "Any time you site a facility like that, there’s a lot that goes into it."

As for the prospects of gambling in Orange County, he called it "a very viable area."

At the same time, DeSalvio said Genting has no plans to end harness racing at Monticello — which local officials have feared since the video-lottery machines were shuttered.

"We see the racing operations continuing," he said. "They’ve done well sending out the signal for simulcasting. I believe they have positioned the property well."

More: MGM Resorts has huge plans for Empire City Casino in Yonkers. But it needs this first

Resorts World Catskills has about 1,400 employees, and DeSalvio said there are no major expansion plans for the resort, except finishing the long planned golf course on the property next summer.

He said a 24-month period to get a casino on stable financial ground is not uncommon as it builds a rewards program and a customer base.

And the casino's fiscal picture has improved: Total gross gaming revenue was up 39% in the third quarter compared to the same period in 2018, the Times-Herald Record reported.

So there are no immediate plans to ask for a lower tax rate from the state, as the other upstate casinos have sought, or any immediate efforts to restructure the casino's debt.

"At the end of the day, we have to drive visitation there," he said. "That’s the one way you can really go after an issue like that is to make sure we get as many folks in there."

But how long does he have to make that happen?

DeSalvio responded, "Let’s put it this way: We have to build the business as quickly as possible."

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