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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Casino won’t be a win-win proposition

Whenever I listen to arguments in favor of the casino proposed for Schenectady, I feel like a little devil’s advocate is sitting on my shoulder.

Maybe the casino will be a good thing, this little devil’s advocate whispers. Maybe it really will do all of the things its supporters say it will do — create good jobs, revitalize the waterfront, generate much-needed revenue. Yes, problem gambling is bad, but so is problem drinking, and nobody’s advocating for a return to Prohibition. Why be such a moral scold when it comes to casinos?

The little devil’s advocate hopped onto my shoulder during the Schenectady County Legislature’s Monday night public hearing on the casino project. During the presentation by the Rotterdam-based developer Galesi Group and Rush Street Gaming of Chicago, I often found myself nodding my head. All the cheerful talk of redeveloping Schenectady’s historic waterfront, eliminating blight and creating “good, living-wage jobs” for local residents was music to my ears.

“That $450 million number is too significant to overlook,” said Bobby Mallozzi, owner of Villa Italia in Schenectady, in reference to the project’s total investment.

“Look around,” said Schenectady resident Mary Ann Ruscitto. “Do you see a line of companies who want to spend [$450 million] to make the city better?”

Fortunately, there were enough anti-casino speakers present to counteract the little devil’s advocate’s powers of persuasion.

These people reminded me that I simply do not believe a casino will do all of the wonderful things its supporters say it will. That there are real reasons to question whether gambling is a viable path to long-term economic growth. That casinos are, by nature, predatory.

“A casino extracts money,” Schenectady resident Mohamed Hafez said. “It takes from the poor and puts it in rich pockets.”

“A casino produces nothing,” Glenville resident Daniel Hill said. “Its success comes from making its customers routinely fail again and again and again. That’s not a recipe for growth. That’s a racket.”

A recent report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli suggests that the naysayers are right to be skeptical.

The report found that while new casinos will likely produce new revenue for the state and bring in out-of-towners, much of the betting and revenue will come from New Yorkers.

Many of these people will simply redirect their spending to the new facilities, at the expense of other entertainment options, gaming venues, such as OTB centers, and stores. And while the new casinos will create new jobs, some existing jobs will be lost due to the changed habits of consumers.

“Every day, New Yorkers scratch off tickets or play the odds in hopes of hitting a big winner,” DiNapoli said, in a statement. “The payoff for the state is significant — billions are coming into state coffers. In fact, New York collects more in gambling revenues than any other state in the nation. Now with a new expansion underway, more casinos will mean more gaming revenue and new jobs, but the long-term impact for the state remains unclear. It will inevitably create both winners and losers in the years ahead.”

DiNapoli’s report is interesting because it suggests that New York is already teeming with gambling opportunities.

Until I looked at it, I had no idea that New York already collected more in gambling revenue than any other state in the nation. And I’m curious: Is there a limit to how much revenue can be generated through gambling? Will we eventually reach a point where revenue flat lines because New Yorkers have run out of money to throw away on lottery tickets, horse racing, slot machines and poker?

DiNapoli told The New York Times that he liked the idea of revenue and jobs, and had no opinion on whether casinos were a good or bad thing.

“We just want people to have realistic expectations as to what may, or may not, come from this,” he said.

I see good arguments on both sides of the casino issue, and everyone who spoke at the public hearing struck me as well-intentioned and sincere. My sense is that opponents and supporters want the same things — jobs, revenue, a revitalized community — but disagree on whether building a casino is the best way to attain them. I’ve been to casinos before and would certainly go again, if I happened to be hanging out with friends who wanted to go.

But I’m becoming increasingly puzzled at how we got to this point — how we became a country where casinos are touted as a surefire way to stimulate the economy. It’s as if we’ve lost all hope of creating jobs and generating revenue through other, more traditional means, and have bought into the idea that casinos are some sort of magical golden goose.

One of my favorite comments came at the end of the public hearing from a woman. “I am a gambler,” she said. “Every other month, I go to the casino. I take $100 with me. When it’s gone, I go home.”
There has been so much debate over whether a casino is good or bad for the Capital Region, that it was actually sort of refreshing to hear from someone who simply enjoys gambling.

Which makes me think that it isn’t casinos that bother me so much as all the noble talk about what they will do. Yes, they’ll create some jobs and generate some revenue. But their main purpose is to provide a place where people can play games.

And lose money to the house.

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