Most neighborhood leaders say they’re all in on casino plan

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
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The former Alco factory site along Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, pictured recently, is the site of a proposed casino.
The former Alco factory site along Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, pictured recently, is the site of a proposed casino.

— Ask the leaders of the most downtrodden neighborhoods in the city about a proposed casino, and there’s one firm answer: It would help.

“People need jobs and the casino would bring in those jobs,” said Hamilton Hill neighborhood association President Marva Isaacs.

Likewise, in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood, leaders are hoping for a casino.

“It’s development. We need development,” said Sharron Schmidt, who leads the Mont Pleasant neighborhood association.

Downtown, business owners are rooting for it too.

“I really don’t see any negatives,” said Villa Italia owner Bobby Mallozzi.

He said a casino would be a “tremendous asset” to Schenectady in terms of property taxes and jobs.

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He added that he’s not worried about competition from casino restaurants. He expects his family’s locations, including Johnny’s on State Street, to continue to do well.

“As Schenectady grows, so does the opportunity for businesses to grow and expand,” he said. “Are we concerned? No. We’re more excited than concerned.”

Proctors CEO Philip Morris is also OK with the prospect of a casino opening in the city.

He is part of the new Coalition for a Fair Game, which is focused on making sure casinos don’t kill local theaters and other businesses. He said the group has been talking with the casino developer and is reassured by the tentative plans.

“I think this could be OK,” he said. “All the conversations we have had with the developer have been very positive.”

Proctors might even run the entertainment at the casino, he added.

“All that’s within the realm of possibility,” he said, adding that he’s been reassured the casino operator has “no interest” in doing Broadway shows or even large concerts.

The neighborhood associations haven’t had time to broach the topic at their monthly meetings, but leaders offered their personal opinions, as well as what they thought most of their members would support.

Frustratingly, they said, they are forming opinions in the dark. They don’t know anything about the casino design and haven’t heard from the operator.

But Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen offered some enticing hints.

He said many casino operators toured the Alco site because they wanted to place the casino on a riverfront.

“That put us in the enviable position of picking a highly reputable company,” he said.

He added that he would define such a company as “people who pay good wages, who promised to work with downtown businesses including Proctors, who would work with the [SCCC] casino and gaming program and make a commitment to hire local folks.”

He added that even “floor” jobs, operating the casino games, would pay well above minimum wage.

“We understand that they’re good-paying jobs,” he said. “They’re not minimum wage at all.”

But he said the operator did not want to make a plan public until the state releases its requirements.

“We’re in a holding pattern until the state comes out with their requirements,” he said.

However, neighbors are already beginning to decide whether they’re pro or con.

Lou Grasso, vice president of the Woodlawn neighborhood association, had heard many of Gillen’s hints. He said he was convinced the casino would not out-compete local businesses, but would lift everyone.

“I think it’s an absolutely fabulous idea,” he said. “They’re not going to build anything that competes with Proctors. It’ll be a smaller venue. It’ll be fine as long as they don’t bring in shows, Broadway shows and stuff.”

Schmidt said she was more worried about cut-through traffic in the adjacent residential neighborhoods.

“I think it’s good and bad,” she said. “The traffic’s going to be horrendous. Something will have to be done with that. But if it brings in people from other states and so forth, that would be wonderful.”

She’s in favor largely because she hopes a successful casino will spread success to the Mont Pleasant neighborhood.

“I’d like to see some of that come up Crane Street — motels, hotels, restaurants,” she said. “To take the overflow from downtown, because I don’t think downtown will be able to handle it all.”

On East Front Street, the closest neighborhood to the proposed location, Mary Ann Ruscitto said she’s wholeheartedly in favor of a casino.

“We’ve all very for this. It’s very exciting,” she said. “Our neighborhood is very, very excited.”

Some have criticized the plan, saying that most jobs would probably be minimum wage. But on Hamilton Hill, Isaacs didn’t blink. Minimum wage is better than no wage, she said.

“You have some people here who don’t have a job now,” she said.

Elsewhere, neighbors offered cautious enthusiasm.

George Sykala, vice president of the Bellevue neighborhood association, said he wanted a casino.

“It’ll bring our name out a little more,” he said, dismissing concerns. “There’s negative things with everything.”

But his wife Patti was not so sanguine.

She said the casino wouldn’t hire Schenectady’s unemployed, but instead bring in workers from the suburbs.

“It’s not going to give those people jobs,” she said. “It’s going to create more crime.”

On Goose Hill, association president Camille Sasinowski said she just couldn’t trust the casino to stick around.

She said she might support it if she were confident it wasn’t going to go away, like the OTB.

But she added that when she visited a casino recently, it was a “rather pleasant experience.” And most people there looked like they were just having a good time. They didn’t seem to be desperate for money, she said.

“But there were some people,” she added. “I hate being a moral compass for anybody, but the one thing that scares me is possibly the increase in crime.”

A few said they needed to see the full casino design before they could critique it.

“I need to know more about it,” said Linda Kelleher, president of the Central State Street neighborhood association.

Likewise, Robert Harvey, spokesman for the Eastern Avenue neighborhood group, said he wanted to know how the operator would create a real regional resort.

“I think to do a casino right you really need more land than just a casino,” he said, suggesting a water park or golf course.

He doubted either would fit in the proposed area.

“There’s just not enough room to do it all,” he said.

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April 30, 2014
9:04 a.m.
dagiacalone says...

Seeking or giving support for a Schenectady casino without even knowing the identity and plans of the Applicant seems rather risky. And, accepting at face value the glowing expectations of our professional development cheerleaders and of business leaders planning to partner with any casino, is an even bigger gamble.
When estimating or anticipating benefits from a casino, we need to keep in mind that a stand-alone casino draws far fewer people from outside the area than a resort-style casino. The NYS Gaming Task Force Report to the Governor (1996) did a close analysis of market areas and segments, and pointed out that most regular customers would be coming from a primary zone of up to 25 miles away and would not need to stay overnight; they would, however, be spending money that would be part of (that is, competing with) the regular local leisure market.
Customers from the secondary zone come from 25 to 75 miles away and are expected to come less often that those in the primary zone. The Report assumed "that only a few of the secondary zone people (15 percent) would be staying the night in the immediate area." Customers from the tertiary zone of 75 to 150 miles would come "much less frequently", and only 35% would stay overnight. The Task Force Report also noted that the potential customer base is reduced by having other casinos within the 150-mile area that is the "limits of a realistic market size for a casino."
We also need to know what kind of tax deal Mr. Gillen and Metroplex, the City and County plan to offer an applicant, before counting revenues that would reduce the tax burden of Schenectady tax payers. And, to remember that property values going up could mean higher property taxes for individuals that offset any predicted budget cuts.
The Task Force Report also notes that "[C]asinos in urban areas should be concerned with the potential for prostitution, panhandling, pick-pocketing and purse snatching. Urban casinos would be adversely affected by unsafe urban environments, so that more resources would have to be devoted to maintain order and protect citizens from street crime." (at 219) In addition, "Traffic-related problems, including drunken driving, road congestion, stranded motorists, parking lot accidents, and automobile break-ins, were also viewed as more prevalent." (at 217)
Moreover, pathological gamblers "will likely commit additional income-generating crimes", and "Larceny, embezzlement, check forgery, loan fraud and tax evasion are thought to be the most common crimes."
Finally, before neighborhood leaders announce their support, they should look at the Nov. 2013 election vote on the Casino Proposition. For example, 55.8% of people who voted on that Proposal in Schenectady District 2, which is comprised solely of the Stockade and East Front St. neighborhoods, voted against having any casinos in upstate New York.

April 30, 2014
9:39 a.m.

Congressman Paul Tonko thinks it is not the way to go for our communities. He publicly stated this on WAMC April 17:"You know, I’ve seen these dividing communities along almost a 50-50 threshold. If there is going to be an issue that people decide, if there is going to be a casino in the area, I hope it’s going to be a situation where it’s not in a poor neighborhood because of the disproportional impact on the poor," he said. "But in general, I’m concerned about us hinging our hopes for a better economy on casinos. I think there has got to be a better way, a more straightforward way. What we have is a dependency on perhaps someone to lose their retirement check or their week's salary so that we can invest in children and their future through education. Somehow that doesn’t make sense to me."

"I know people have been saying that it equals jobs and it provides for economic recovery. I don’t know if the soundness of that recovery is as great as we would like to think; you look at the economy in Las Vegas and Nevada, it has not been that great, the property values have dipped precipitously," he added. "I talked to my colleagues from Nevada, they have had tough, tough times and you see this growing number of states in the Northeast that are delving into this concept of casinos. I have to believe there is a finite amount of money that people are able, not necessarily willing, but able to give. After you have drained some of those paychecks and retirement accounts, what’s left?"

April 30, 2014
11:36 a.m.
schdyres says...

Any so called "neighborhood leader" who supports a proposal in the absence of detailed information is irresponsible. Those in nearby communities who have taken the time to examine the facts are not in support of casinos. A full discussion of the costs and benefits should occur before anyone claims to represent opinion in the neighborhoods. The most impacted neighborhoods have not held meetings to discuss the issues at this point nor are they quoted in the story above. The story headline "most" also is misleading as several "leaders" did not feel they were in a position to take a position at this time. Several other neighborhoods were not contacted. Not a very good piece of journalism!
There is an attempt in Schenectady by the political leadership, developers, and seemingly the Gazette to push a rush to judgement. With more time and critical examination of the facts it is likely that citizens in Schenectady will not want a casino.

April 30, 2014
12:58 p.m.
safny says...

I am glad that people want to know a great deal more before jumping on the casino bandwagon. The chronically unemployed are not going to be suddenly working at high paying jobs in a casino. The very idea that the "overflow" will be moving into Mt. Pleasant or Hamilton Hill is absurd. This area does not have affordable, decent housing so if people wanted to move here to work - where would they live? Our elected officials are deluding themselves if they think that a casino will make miracles - and frankly, I would guess the process is already corrupted like most everything in NY politics - so I would not hold my breath for a casino here.

April 30, 2014
3:19 p.m.
schdyres says...

Are we to believe that Philip Morris and Ray Gillen know more about the casino developer's plans than the Schenectady City Council that was about to vote to alter the zoning code? Scary! Let's get the open and public discussion underway.

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