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Hospitality students eye future jobs at casinos

On Monday, New York State's gaming commission awarded three full casino licenses to the sites that got a recommendation last year, including the Lago Resort in the Finger Lakes town of Tyre.  But Southern Tier residents will have to hold out a bit longer, as Tioga Downs in Nichols, which was recommended for a license in the fall, waits for the official word.

The go-ahead from the state to build Las Vegas-style casinos in upstate comes with the promise of jobs. So in anticipation of these facilities, potential casino workers are getting in on the hospitality game.

In Rey Wojdat’s bartending class at SUNY Broome this semester, students learned to prep the bar and mix drinks, of course. They also learned the legal rules the state sets for establishments that serve alcohol.

Amid the lessons on the nitty-gritty of the industry, Wojdat sprinkles in lessons on the big picture.

“It’s not just the drink,” he tells his students. His passion is contagious. “It’s the entire experience. That’s what you must always keep in mind. I serve an experience to you. The whole thing. From preparation to final service. To even how I clean the glass.”

Likewise, serving the region is something Wojdat thinks his hospitality programs should do.

“What we should be doing is helping train the population locally that wants to stay local in jobs that are available to them.”

More hospitality jobs are expected when Tioga Downs gets that full license. Owner Jeff Gural promises 560 new positions with an expanded venue that will include table games and a hotel.

Leah White of Vestal is interested. A student in Wojdat’s bartending class, White is president of the hospitality club at SUNY Broome and working toward degrees in hotel/restaurant management and events management. Though she’s thinking about leaving the area for further schooling, she sees opportunity at Tioga Downs.

“If they open a hotel up there and everything, like I’ve heard that they’ve got planned, I would love to work up there,” she said. “That’d be right up my alley.” White said that when she first left high school, she wanted to leave the Southern Tier. But her studies have opened her eyes to the opportunities in the hospitality jobs that are here.

Still, others are looking to get training and leave. Connie McIntyre of Endicott was, like White, learning to cut garnishes and make a Tom Collins. But she wants to follow family that moved to Florida and maybe open her own business.

“It just seems like it’s so profitable down there,” she said. “I was born and raised here but I’ve been laid off so many places that [I] came back to school at 45.”

Of course, hotel and restaurant jobs can be found in lots of places. Jobs for card dealers, while growing, are less common.

Wojdat’s colleague Bernadette Quaglia teaches a class on how to be a dealer. Quaglia was a dealer herself on a Carnival cruise ship. She advanced to the position of pit boss - a manager who supervises several tables at once. Quaglia is a proponent of the industry to her students. It’s exciting, she says, and there’s opportunity for advancement.

Furthermore, Quaglia doesn’t think too many out-of-work dealers from Atlantic City will be coming up to work at Tioga Downs.

“I don’t know how many people that live in different places want to come to this area,” she said.

That would leave Southern Tier residents like James Baburchak in a good position. He took Quaglia’s class in the spring of 2014. After two Southern Tier applications were rejected for casino licenses one year ago, Baburchak went looking for opportunities in other industries. He’s now in training to manage a Dollar Tree store in Binghamton.

Why didn’t he look for work at Turning Stone, in Central New York, or at a casino in the Poconos?

“My niece is a huge part of my life,” Baburchak said. “And if I wasn’t in this area, I feel like I would miss her growing up. Granted, there’s technology where I can FaceTime with her and all that, but she’s seven. She’s my buddy.”

Baburchak is thrilled Tioga Downs might let him do both -- see his niece grow up and work as a card dealer. He’s going to a career summit there on Monday. But he might stay in retail. He says it comes down to money for him.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says your average dealer in New York makes $12.80 an hour. That number includes some tips. Making bigger money on tips depends on how many people turn up to gamble at Tioga Downs ... and how rich they are.