Nearly five years ago, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York landed a million-dollar highway earmark in a transportation bill chock full of more than 6,300 such projects. As earmarks go, it failed to gain much attention. This same bill, after all, directed billions elsewhere for projects far more visible than a rural highway leading to a Catskills Mountain resort planned by a prominent real estate developer.
The relatively small earmark came after the developer, Concord Associates’ Louis Cappelli, and his team opened their wallets and donated a combined $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, then headed by Schumer. None had ever contributed to that political action committee (PAC) before. Some of the same executives gave an additional $64,000 to the committee over the next few years, after the bill with the earmark was signed into law.
But the New York Department of Transportation did not claim this specific million-dollar earmark. Its intended purpose — to study widening Route 17 from two to three lanes in each direction over a 43 mile stretch — did not appear to be a priority for the state. The stretch of road in question starts near the village of Harriman and extends northwest to Sullivan County, where Cappelli envisions a huge “Entertainment City” to restore the Catskills to its former fame as a vacation destination and generator of much-needed local jobs. A wider road might cut travel time from New York City, some 100 miles away from the resort and its planned time-shares, dinner theater, riding stable, winery, artists colony, and spa. Empire Resorts Inc., of which Cappelli is also a director and major shareholder, would oversee horse racing and video gaming operations at the site. Empire also hopes to develop a full casino on 29 acres situated just across the highway. The potential is massive; but the planning is still largely unclear.