A rising entertainment capital

The simultaneous arrival of a major Hollywood entertainment studio’s production facilities coupled with a new chapter for a popular gaming destination is resulting in Yonkers being reinvented as the region’s new crossroads of commerce and culture.

While Yonkers is New York state’s third most populous city, it seemed for too many years lost in the shadow of its southern neighbor, which just happened to be both the most populous city in both the state and the nation. 

Today, however, Yonkers is emerging as a vibrant metropolis in its own right. The simultaneous arrival of a major Hollywood entertainment studio’s production facilities coupled with a new chapter for a popular gaming destination is resulting in Yonkers being reinvented as the region’s new crossroads of commerce and culture.

In the Lionsgate den

This month marks the completion of Lionsgate studio at 51 Wells Ave. near the Metro-North Railroad station in Yonkers. The complex, which opens in January, will be one of the largest modern film and TV production campuses in the Northeast.

Lionsgate (“The Hunger Games,” “Mad Men”) is one of the entertainment industry’s most admired production and distribution entities. Having this Hollywood powerhouse in Westchester is an extraordinary development that was unthinkable until Mayor Mike Spano arrived at City Hall one decade ago, Melissa Goldberg said.

“When the mayor first came into office in 2012, there was little to no filming going on here because of all the red tape that was in place with the city,” says Goldberg, director of the mayor’s Film & Photography Office. “When the mayor came on board, it was obvious to him that this was an industry that was right for our city. So he set up a department that didn’t exist before and created an office where production location managers, directors and producers can come not only to obtain a permit but to get assistance with any city services, vocations or just pretty much anything that they needed.”

Goldberg credits the city’s “many diverse landscapes” for attracting both budget-conscious independent filmmakers and big-budget Hollywood power players. The latter included Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated “The Irishman” and Denzel Washington’s upcoming “A Journal for Jordan.” But rather than focus on Yonkers’ neighborhoods and vistas for background location flavor, the city sought to attract a steadier flow of film and TV work that would be concentrated within a studio setting. 

“It makes sense, because we are in the vicinity of New York City,” Goldberg adds. “We have been busy welcoming filming here from all different spectrums.”

Robert Halmi, co-founder of the media-focused investment fund Great Point Capital Management and son of the late North Salem-based TV producer Robert Halmi Sr., also recognized what he considered to be an “incredible shortage of film and television infrastructure in the Northeast” and theorized that a major studio would be eager for a Westchester-based home for its New York-based productions.” 

Great Point Capital Management teamed with National Resources, a Greenwich-based real estate development firm, in pitching the former Otis Elevator property in Yonkers to Lionsgate, which signed a letter of intent in September 2019 for the construction of three 20,000-square feet and two 10,000-square feet stages, a fully operational back lot. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed progress on the project, which was originally planned for an August 2020 completion, but the setback was temporary and Halmi reports that “Lionsgate will be there in January. That’s when they’ll start production of their first show.”

Halmi notes that the first phase of the project “will create about 700 to 750 full-time jobs, more than 500 construction jobs, and the revenue to Yonkers should be approximately $125 million to $150 million a year.” Halmi’s Great Point Studios LLC will manage the Yonkers production campus, which carries the Lionsgate Studios name.

Goldberg reports that Lionsgate is not the only Hollywood power player with its eyes on Yonkers.

“At this point, we’re really not at liberty to say too much about it,” she says, hinting that the arrival of a second cinematic tenant would be “a game changer. To add this other studio would literally make Yonkers the Burbank of New York.”

Empire City 2.0

Meanwhile, on the other side of Yonkers, a longer-established fixture of the city’s entertainment world is undergoing another journey under new ownership: Empire City Casino was acquired in August from MGM Growth Properties by the real estate investment trust VICI Properties as part of a multiproperty transaction for $17.2 billion.

According to Empire City Casino President and Chief Operating Officer Ed Domingo, the venue has emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic ready, eager and willing to move to the next plane of entertainment.

“It’s been a challenging time for any business, but we’ve been incredibly thankful at how quickly and how strongly we’ve been able to come back and how quickly our customers have told us that they value us as one of their key entertainment options here in Westchester,” Domingo says. “And we are even more heartened by our employees and the passion that they’ve had to come back. There’s been a lot of stories going on across the country really about all kinds of industries struggling to get their workers back, and I’m really pleased to say that Empire has had the opposite of that problem. We’ve had over 95% of our employees that we’ve asked to come back return to us immediately.”

Domingo self-identified Empire City Casino as Yonkers’ largest private taxpayer, with a workforce of about 1,000 and more than 75% union members. 

“We’ve made a lot of investments in this property since MGM acquired it back in early 2019,” he continues, noting the company’s first investment was an employee dining room “because what we found here didn’t really meet the standards of what we thought our employees needed to be able to rest, relax and have a pretty good meal.”

Looking ahead for 2022, Domingo is forecasting a potential commercial casino license from the state “which would allow us to go from the operation that we have today, which is all electronic games, to having live table games and being able to hire more employees.” Domingo predicts that a commercial license would enable the venue to replace its electronic games with “a live table game that actually creates six to seven jobs per table game, and we’d be looking at putting a couple 100 table games in here.”

Of course, Westchester denizens of a certain age recall Empire City’s pre-casino halcyon days as the harness racing mecca Yonkers Raceway. Domingo insisted the harness racing aspect of the venue remains an important attraction that has received the attention it deserves.

“We’ve made significant investments in that side of the business as well, which I think surprised some folks, because MGM was not traditionally thought of as a horse-racing company,” he says. “This year, we’ve completed a resurfacing and we spent over a half-million dollars doing that. Before that, we’ve replaced all of the lights here, which were old halogen bulbs, with LED lighting, which provides a better-quality picture for those watching on simulcast. There were a few million dollars in investment into the track in the first three years that we’re here, which I hope speaks to our commitment to the sport of harness racing and to the historic importance of Yonkers Raceway.”

And while most people outside of the region might not consider Yonkers as a gaming capital, Domingo points out that Empire City’s casino floor is the sixth-largest in the country.

“We welcome more than 9 million visitors annually here, which is more than the Statue of Liberty actually,” he adds. “I think that surprises people that the number of people that come and enjoy Empire as a primary entertainment option. It’s really just a pleasure to be at the center of this kind of activity every day.”

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