NY’s Vernon Downs Racetrack and Casino faces imminent closure unless tax cut restored, says owner

The Vernon Downs Racetrack and Casino, located in Vernon, New York, may be forced to shut down by the end of the year unless the state restores a tax cut it received a few years ago, according to owner Jeff Gural.

Gural announced that the business has filed a layoff notice with the state Labor Department, indicating that it may need to close its slot-machine casino and some restaurants by August, with the harness racetrack shutting down in September and the hotel and other operations closing on or before December 31. The closure would result in the loss of 249 union jobs and approximately 40 non-union jobs.

Gural revealed that he lost $2 million operating Vernon Downs last year, a number he believes could have been made up if the state had restored a tax reduction it had given him in 2017. He argued that the tax cut was based on maintaining employees, which was impossible during the pandemic, resulting in the elimination of the tax reduction in 2021.

The restoration of the 2017 tax cut would have dropped Gural’s “vendor’s fee” to the state from $13 million to $11 million, which he believes would be enough to break even. “I’m not talking about profit here,” Gural said, as reported by Syracuse.com. “Everything was fine (with the tax cut) and we were breaking even.”

With just a few weeks left in the state Legislature’s 2023 session, Gural said he had to raise the alarm by issuing the closing notice. “I told them I would close,” he said, as per the cited source. “I’m not going to lose another $2 million. This is stupid.” Gural has enlisted the support of Workers United Upstate New York, which represents union employees.

In addition to Vernon Downs, Gural owns Tioga Downs, located just west of Binghamton, which was allowed to transform into a full-service “Vegas-style” casino in 2016. The businessman said the tax rate he received in 2017 was endorsed by a state consultant in light of the increased gaming competition upstate. 

The small community of Vernon in Oneida County depends heavily on the track’s economic input, he said. “It’s the best (harness) track in the state,” he told the previously cited source. “The horsemen stay there 12 months out of the year, and we have people depending on the stables and everything else. We donate to the Food Bank every year. Closing would wipe out the little town of Vernon.”

On Wednesday, state Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, an Oneida County Democrat, issued a statement about the situation: “I have been notified by my constituents of the possible closing of Vernon Downs in stages if the legislative and executive branches can’t find a solution to supporting another tax credit extender,” she said. “I have worked endlessly with my colleagues in the legislature in the past and will continue to do so to assist Vernon Downs to remain open. My number one priority remains the employees and their families.”

State Sen. Joseph Griffo, a Republican from Rome, also released a statement. “I understand the challenges facing Vernon Downs and initially and successfully led efforts to provide relief for the venue in the past,” Griffo said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues at all levels of government to keep the facility open and operational, support employees and ownership and push for action to be taken in Albany again to ensure that Vernon Downs is given every opportunity to be successful and thrive.”