Now a COVID vaccine site, Westchester County Center future tied to Empire City Casino plans

Thursday 21st January 2021

WHITE PLAINS - There may be no going back to normal at the Westchester County Center.

The small municipal arena turned mass COVID-19 vaccination site is ripe for rethinking once the pandemic ends and a $42.9 million emergency hospital built there is dismantled.

But what the future holds will have a lot to do with whether Empire City Casino in Yonkers follows through on its plan to build a sports and concert venue that could overshadow the center.

"It needs improvement, it needs modernization," County Executive George Latimer said in a wide-ranging interview marking the start of 2021, the final year of his first four-year term in office.

The taxpayer-funded arena, former home of the WNBA's New York Liberty, hasn't had a comprehensive renovation since the 1980s.

"And do we reconfigure it in any way to make it more marketable for the future?" Latimer said. "Those things I can't tell you, but there will definitely be a project for the second term, if I have one."

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The 90-year-old county center closed last spring during the early days of the coronavirus spreading in the region, and the federal government converted the space into an overflow hospital as officials feared COVID-19 would push the state's hospital system past its capacity.

But even at the height of the first wave, hospitals didn't fill and the expensive emergency hospital remained unused but at the ready as another surge loomed. The center opened last week as one of the first three state-run mass vaccination sites.

The county isn't expecting it to open as an arena again this year.

Planned events such as a concert by Herman's Hermits have been canceled and the NBA development league Westchester Knicks, who call the center home, will play their entire upcoming season at a single league location in Walt Disney World starting in February.

Beyond 2021, the county center faces a potentially costly struggle to stay relevant and draw crowds in the suburbs - just miles from New York City's bright lights, big league teams and famous arenas.

Competing with a state-of-the-art entertainment venue at Empire City and its deep-pocketed owner MGM Resorts will mean high price tags with possible diminishing returns for a facility that already routinely runs in the red when factoring in debt service.

MGM bought Empire City and Yonkers Raceway in 2019 for $850 million and is trying to convince New York State to give the casino a full gambling license. If it's granted, MGM envisions replacing Empire City's video lottery terminals with slots and table games and could build indoor parking, a hotel - and an entertainment venue.

The state has a hold on new licenses until at least 2023 as part of its agreement with four upstate casinos, but in 2019 MGM and Resorts World New York City offered $500 million apiece to the state for gaming licenses and also offered to cover fees that would be owed to the upstate casinos if the ban is lifted.

Empire City spokeswoman Taryn Duffy said granting the casino a full license would put money back into the local economy and mean immediate new revenue for the state through fees.

Empire City was the largest private employer in Yonkers before the pandemic. But it furloughed about 1,000 workers when it shut down due to the coronavirus last year. A portion of the workforce was restored when the casino reopened at a limited capacity in September.

"A full-scale casino license, with mobile sports betting and live dealers, would significantly speed up recovery, help us hire back employees and put more local residents back to work," Duffy said.

A one-stop destination with gaming, dining and entertainment would make it difficult to continue business as usual at the county center, a facility which may continue to grow outdated in concept even if its aging infrastructure is upgraded.

The center and other small community arenas that seat only a few thousand are competing for attention with multiple other entertainment options. Pop music's biggest draws expect huge arenas and large paychecks.

Westchester has spent millions in recent years to upgrade the county center lights, sound and facilities and has booked occasional nostalgia acts like the Beach Boys. Its still largely known for hosting trade shows, a reptile expo and the Royal Hanneford Circus.

And though school sports are likely to remain part of municipal arena's DNA, pro sports may be tougher to lock in because of the building's size and location.

When the WNBA Liberty called Westchester home from 2018-19 it was viewed as a temporary suburban exile while the team was sold. Its time at the county center was sandwiched between playing home games at Madison Square Garden and the $1 billion Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

An arena football team called the New York Streets played one season at the county center in 2019 before folding. The Streets' indoor turf football field was smaller in size than others in the league, and a balcony extended over part of the end zone.

Westchester will consider whether more pro sports and concerts are a priority in the future renovation, but first it still has a pandemic to get through.

The county center may yet be needed as overflow hospital space and could be converted to a testing site even once the vaccine is widely distributed months from now, Latimer said.

"Because the testing for COVID is not going to disappear after everybody gets a vaccine," he said. "We're going to have to still track what the course of the virus is in our society."

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