Casinos, construction among businesses doing well in Central New York during pandemic
Turning Stone Resort Casino in Vernon closed its doors on March 20, 2020, losing months of revenue and foot traffic as COVID-19 swept through New York that spring.
Today, the Oneida Indian Nation, which runs the casino and other businesses throughout the area, is experiencing business success and record-breaking tourism, paying out $1.5 million in bonuses over the past year and opening The Lake House, another casino in nearby Sylvan Beach, in July 2020.
The Nation paid employees over $150,000 in referral bonuses and offered major sign-on bonuses for housekeeping, culinary and other critical operation positions as part of a total of $1.5 million in bonuses at the end of the summer, Nation spokesman Joel Barkin said. The Nation also reopened dealer schools to give more people the chance to train to be dealers at the Nation’s casinos.
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Taking over a former wedding and banquet hall facility, The Lake House features 100 slot machines, indoor and outdoor lakefront dining options, three bars, a patio and an outdoor area for live entertainment.
People lined up outside the new casino last summer, just after the height of the pandemic when many businesses had recently reopened.
“The Oneida Indian Nation and Oneida County have developed a model relationship that has aligned our interests and delivers results for the region,” Barkin said, adding that the Nation worked closely with County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. and his team on a range of issues related to public health, tourism and employment.
"What you’re seeing now is the fruits of that partnership," Barkin said.
Gaming revenue has been high, as Oneida County was able to reinstate almost $1 million to its 2021 budget to aid seven municipalities. The county receives a share of the gaming revenue thanks to a deal struck between The Nation and and Picente.
Nation representatives correlated the increase in gaming revenue to record-breaking tourism numbers this year at its golf courses, which included a 45% increase in overnight stays at the resort.
Despite the increase in gaming revenue and golf stays, Turning Stone is still not operating at full capacity. Exit 33, Turning Stone’s nightlife venue, has not yet reopened and many of the restaurants at the casino have yet to return to pre-pandemic hours.
Job sectors faring well
Other business industries have been doing what they can to weather the ongoing economic upheaval related to the pandemic. Job openings have increased across the state in 2021, but many workplaces are facing lingering worker shortages.
According to statistics from New York State Department of Labor, the Utica-Rome area increased its nonfarm job count by 3,000, or 2.5%, to 120,700 in the 12-month period ending September 2021. Private sector employment during that same timeframe rose by 2.8%, according to the statistics.
Job gains were posted in leisure and hospitality, government, transportation and utilities, natural resources, mining and construction, to list a few. Education and health services was the only sector that lost jobs this year in that region, losing about 300 positions, according to the statistics.
These job gains are expected to continue, according to the labor department's long-term occupation projections for 2018 to 2028. The majority of jobs associated with the gaining sectors show an increase themselves, some even in double digits over the next seven years, according to the projections.
Jobs have also increased statewide, gaining 8,000 nonfarm jobs and 14,800 private sector jobs in Sept. 2021 alone, according to statewide labor data released in late October.
The leisure and hospitality sector grew the most out of any industry in New York over the past year, with statewide jobs increasing by 18.8%, or 117,000 positions. The next largest job increases were in information, at 7.8%, and natural resources and mining, at 7.5%.
The statewide construction industry saw a 9,600 job loss for a decline of 2.5% — the government and financial sectors also saw job losses.
Pritha Chaudhuri, an assistant professor of economics at Hamilton College, said businesses doing well during the pandemic share some of the same traits, including pivoting quickly and flexibility.
Chaudhuri also said businesses that offer better benefits are seeing a rise in employees.
“I think that people have just readjusted what they want,” Chaudhuri said.
Other business sectors will eventually catch up, she said, but it will demand that businesses rethink what they want to do.
“Those adjustments will take time,” Chaudhuri said.
Building a steady business
Hueber-Breuer, a Syracuse-based construction company working across the Central New York region, saw an increase in project starts as the worst of the pandemic subsided, said president Andy Breuer. This could be attributable to the resumed construction of healthcare buildings, he added.
Perhaps its most prominent project in the Mohawk Valley is the Nexus Center in downtown Utica. That project is expected to resume in the near future, with a summer 2022 completion date.
Breuer said Hueber-Breuer has been generally busy and fortunate that much of the construction work it has been involved in was deemed essential.
“I’d say we’ve been OK, the past 18 months,” Breuer said.
Hueber-Breuer has been doing more work with drones, camera technology for documentation, systems for and utilizing metal frames, Breuer said, detailing some of the ways the construction company tries to stay cutting edge.
This construction was slow to get out of the gate as everyone was more focused on the pandemic, Breuer said, but he's optimistic looking forward.
“It seems in general we are coming out of the pandemic hangover,” he said.
Ed Harris is the Oneida County reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email Ed Harris at EHarris1@gannett.com.