Hats in hand and tin cups raised, Schenectady’s leaders did not exactly do us proud at yesterday’s Public Comment Event. As we’ve said before, Schenectady’s economic and financial plight is simply not desperate enough for the City to take the Casino Gamble with its future, its social fabric, its reputation, and its soul. Casino supporters might like to call casino opponents “nay-sayers,” but we seem to have a lot more faith in Schenectady’s revival than they do. Of course, when running for election, these same leaders trip over their own tongues telling us how successful they have been reviving and transforming Schenectady.
Giving Rush Street Gaming and The Galesi Group the gaming license will not meet the development and job-creation goals of the Upstate New York State gaming law. The first Point in our Statement in Opposition to the Schenectady Casino explains why.
POINT ONE. Unlike the other Capital Region locations proposed to the Board, the Schenectady Casino is the only Location Well on its Way to Being Fully Developed without a Casino, and Schenectady already has a Vibrant and Successful Development Process.
The Applicant calls Schenectady “distressed” and sees its casino as a vital part in the region’s “Bring Cities Back to Life” strategy. But, Schenectady has been successfully planning and executing an impressive revival for quite some time without a casino, and Mohawk Harbor was already well on its way to being a spectacular development along the Mohawk long before Rush Street Gaming ever heard the phrase “Old Alco site.” Thus, we are told at the website SchenectadyDemocrats.com, that we have had “$830 million in new development and 6,200 jobs created or retained since 2004.” A similar assessment is made at SchenectadyCountyDemocrats.com, which sizes up a shorter timeframe and exclaims:
“The new unified economic development team has delivered 3,500 new jobs, and $400 million in new private sector investment in our economy. Through hard work and vision, decay and stagnation have given way to growth and renewal. Smarter, smaller more efficient government has saved taxpayers millions.
“A revitalized economic and cultural center in Schenectady, reinvigorated industrial parks, thousands of new jobs and millions of new private sector investment stand as accomplishments of a Democratic team dedicated to working together with anyone of good will to achieve results for the people of Schenectady County.”
Even in the context of such vibrant development, the announcement that the Galesi Group would spend $150 million dollars in the first phase of a massive redevelopment of the old American Locomotive Company site in Schenectady, made a very big splash along the Mohawk. Even before an extra $50 million for the second phase of Mohawk Harbor was added in, the numbers were surely higher than had ever been seen in Schenectady for a private, non-industrial project.
The Gazette called the original multi-use development plans for the sight “grand”, and Galesi Group CEO David Buicko modestly said it would serve as “the poster child for upstate New York development;” and, long before the word casino was being whispered about town, Buicko claimed the site could be developed into “the next major tourist attraction in upstate New York.”
Laura Schweitzer, the President of Union Graduate College clearly agreed with all the praise for Mohawk Harbor, writing while nominating David Buicko for a Community Hero award:
“Nothing that has been done to date in Schenectady will be quite as transformational as the innovative and break-through project planned for the Alco site on the Mohawk River that Dave initiated in the last year. “ [see “Union Graduate College Community Partner Dave Buicko Receives ‘Hero Award’” (Union Graduate College News, May 27, 2014)
The Capital Region Economic Development Council clearly concurred with Ms. Schweitzer, as it gave the riverfront project a $5,000,000 award in 2013 to assist development of the plans, which include retail, space, apartments, a hotel, a marina, and more.
Given the economic and civic boost expected from Mohawk Harbor without a casino, it is difficult to see why Schenectady should be saddled with the potential problems that come with an urban casino. Brownfield remediation surely should not be an excuse for taking the gamble with Schenectady’s future, even though the Applicant is giving his casino facility a lot of credit for cleaning up the brownfield. As the Gazette reported, DEC issued a proposed cleanup plan for the site last March and (with no casino license in the picture):
“Galesi will implement the final cleanup plan, for which the company has received a grant. . . . The entire cleanup should be complete by the end of 2015, but most of the site will be clean by the end of 2014, DEC said.”
To date, the only thing the casino tangent has done to Mohawk Harbor is slow down its progress, and saddle it with additional environmental review. It has also turned a development plan nearly universally applauded, into a divisive struggle within the community. The casino plans would also apparently mean more space used for parking lots, rather than lawns and trails, compared to other potential uses, and its projected 2.8 million visitors a year will surely bring far more traffic distress than other alternatives.
As community leader Gloria Kishton wrote in June to the Schenectady Gazette:
Schenectady should not entrust its future to a casino…. Schenectady would do well to build on its already impressive accomplishments: attracting diverse small businesses that create things and experiences with real value. The ALCO site has a good basis upon which to build. . . . [It] is better suited for a mixture of commercial uses, tourism and housing options. This would create diversified, sustainable development we could all be proud of, and is a better fit for Schenectady than a casino.
In sum, Schenectady is clearly not the applicant most in need of a giant development boost, especially not a boost with a shaky financial future and risky social impact. The Galesi Group plans to build its grand community along the Mohawk with or without a casino. Granting Rush Street Gaming the operating license would be gilding the lily (which wastes the gold and kills the lily), when other municipalities haven’t even pulled up all their daisies yet. ____________
 “When opportunity knocks, Galesi Group answers,” Schenectady Sunday Gazette, by Bethany Bump, Feb. 16, 2014.
 “Galesi Group plans for ALCO site will be downsized without state aid,” Albany Business Review,by Haley Viccaro, Nov. 6, 2013. Mr. Buicko was reassuring about the future, saying the company would not desert the site if funds for a film studio were pronounced dead. The same has been said many times about continuing with or without a casino. Having already spent over a $100 million on the project, Galesi is not walking or rowing away.
 “Substrate to help dissolve solvents,” by Kathleen Moore, March 18, 2014.
 One caveat that has been raised about Mohawk Harbor relates to the effects on flooding of creating a marina and building on a raised floodplain. That problem would exist, however, if a casino were added to the plans for Mohawk Harbor. A report from the Army Corps of Engineers may help settle the dispute.
Business Support? For our money, butt-kissing by our business community shouldn’t work either: Support voiced by business owners about the benefits for all from a casino in our City should not impress the Location Board, when the business in question has been lining up a partnership with Rush Street Gaming from the start, and will be part of the gang siphoning off income from their existing competitors in the leisure and entertainment marketplace and enriching themselves at the casino trough.
We’ve thought from the start that Rush Street Gaming would be “partnering” with the very people trying the hardest to convince Schenectady that all of Schenectady will share in the larger pie produced by new casino business. The list of partners finally put out by Rush Street Gaming seems to confirm our suspicions. “Schenectady casino developers announce local partnerships“, Schenectady Daily Gazette, by Haley Viccaro, September 22, 2014.
This is what we said on the subject of Business Community Support in our Statement to the Location Board, in the subject argument that Rust Street’s local support was weaker than it appears:
What does a support letter from a local business owner mean? What does it say about “community support” for the actual proposal? The promiscuous use of redaction by the Applicant has left us with mostly speculation, about things such as its target demographic, plans to attract travelers from long distances, local companies that would partner with Rush Street. It seems, however, that those who proclaimed the earliest and most loudly that existing businesses would not be harmed by operation of the casino were businesses that already expected or fervently hoped that their own business would be major “partners” with the casino. I.e., the Mallozzis and Proctor’s.
Others on the list of business supporters appear to be beneficiaries of, or supplicants for, Metroplex grants and loans. They need to keep Metroplex’s leadership happy, if they hope to be chosen for funding. Are they supporting the casino plan because they believe it is best for the City, placating Metroplex or the Mayor, or trying to please the Region’s biggest owner and developer of commercial offices?
We contend that such “business support” says little about how the Schenectady community truly feels about the casino proposal. It is quite difficult to locate on that list of supporters the non-Metroplexed little guys — bar and restaurant and bowling alley owners, etc. — who are in fact most likely to be losers if a casino becomes the Goliath in our local leisure and entertainment marketplace.
Given the Applicant’s stress on the quality and variety of its amenities, the amount of food and beverage sales it expects to make, and the large amount of sales taxes it will generate, it appears Rush Street Gaming is expecting the great bulk of its customers and revenues will come from people living close enough to be day-trippers, who will stay inside Mohawk Harbor until it is time to drive home. In addition, with two hotels planned for Mohawk Harbor to handle overnight guests at the casino, there seems to be little chance that No Vacancy signs at the casino will mean added prosperity for existing hotels.
The important question today should be “how much support will this very local casino have in the business community a few years from now, when we see who wins and who loses from Schenectady’s casino gamble?”