Tioga Downs' up-down past looks to soar in the future

By Erika Mahoney

May 21, 2014 Updated May 21, 2014 at 11:54 PM EDT

Nichols, N.Y. (WBNG Binghamton) In 2003, Long Islander Jeff Gural -- a self-proclaimed "racing guy" -- decided to buy a race track.

"Somebody mentioned Tioga Downs, I had no idea where it was," Gural recalled. "But they mentioned it was near Binghamton. I said, 'Oh I'll take a ride up,' because my mother was from Binghamton. She passed away quite a while ago. And I thought boy, my mother would really get a kick out of it."

Gural met with Sen. Tom Libous, R-Binghamton, who shared the story behind the track.

It opened in 1976 as a quarter horse track, but only survived a few seasons.

"To see a beautiful piece of property that had so much life all of a sudden disappear and sit here along Route 17, I-86, with nothing on it, was really bad," said Linn Redder, who was born and raised in nearby Elmira, and is the racino's vice president of marketing.

Besides an occasional flea market, the track sat silent for years.

Several people took interest, yet nothing seemed to come to fruition.

But Gural had big ideas, which would require a law change -- and he had Libous' support.

"He said fine, I'll help you, but don't hang me out to dry here," Gural said

Gural wanted a racino, and after years of lobbying for video lottery terminals, or VLTS, pushing to lower the tax rate and increase marketing allowance, his plans became reality.

The doors to Tioga Downs opened in 2006.

"It was probably open about a year and a half before I ever came here and I actually brought my parents here for Mother's Day one year. As soon as I walked into the entrance of the building, my jaw dropped," Redder said.

Redder also said she was so impressed, she wanted to work there.

Through the years, the racino was developed to not only feature racing and machines, but concerts, dining and events.

In early May, it held the annual "Derby Fest," to celebrate the Kentucky Derby.

"I think it actually was the third or fourth busiest days we've had…" Gural said.

But those numbers could pale in comparison if Tioga Downs secures the casino gaming license.

"I think the overall growth in tourism will be a major attraction beyond what we already are," said Tioga Downs President Tom Osiecki. "We are the gateway to the Finger Lakes and the fact that we are working in conjunction with the area is really, really important … It's a game changer."

And Gural says his mom would be really thrilled.

"Usually when I mention it, I start to tear up a little," he said. "Yeah, I think she would get a kick out of it."

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