casino choices in Upstate New York: who will choose Schenectady?

The Snowmen Effect #1: This posting is the first in our new The Snowmen Effect category, in which we will point out how inadequate protection of the public interest has resulted in a less attractive, less safe, less successful, and/or less responsible Rivers Casino in Schenectady. Here, we discuss the lackluster design of Rivers Casino, due to the failure of our snowmen-like leaders to demand better.

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upstatenycasinomap If you lived more than 40 or 50 miles from Schenectady, would you choose Schenectady’s Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor, with its touted $320 million investment by Rush Street Gaming, over the half dozen other casino choices in upstate New York? More than once? (Click on the Upstate NY Casino Map to the right for a larger version; Google Map.)

How will residents of cities like Watertown, Kingston, Binghamton, or Rochester, choose between the casino options available in Upstate New York? Each of the casinos has ample “gaming” options, and similar guest incentive programs, with sufficient dining and hotel accommodations, and entertainment, along with fairly comparable weather. How important will the visual appeal of the casino complex be (architectural design, lighting and landscaping, physical setting)?

riverscasino13jan . . entrance, Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor, Schenectady

riverscasinodesignsThe main entrance of Schenectady’s Rivers Casino can be seen above (Click on the image for a larger version). As detailed in this posting, the final rendition submitted to the public of the casino entrance, in July 2015, looked quite different. Click on the thumbnail image to the right to compare. [note (Feb. 5, 2017): The Galesi Group is still using the July 2015 image in its promotion of Mohawk Harbor, as in the Gazette‘s January 31, 2017 advertising supplement, The Road to Rivers. click to view.]

Here are images of the front façade or casino entrance for each of the three other new Upstate  NY “commercial” casinos granted licenses by the NYS Racing Commission (click on each for a larger image):

. . del Lago  dellagocasino  . .

above: rendering of the casino portion of Del Lago, Waterloo-Tyre NY, opens 01Feb2017;  below: [L] a rendering of the Tioga Downs Casino, Nichols NY, opened 2Dec2016, plus a photo of the Tioga Downs entrance; [R] a rendering of the Montreign Casino, Monticello, opening March 2018

tiogacasinofront . . Tioga Downs Casino  . . tiogaentrancetwc

Montreign Casino . . montreignentrance

There are quite a few choices besides our Rivers Casino (click on the link for each casino in the list below to learn more about its outside appearance, indoor ambiance, and amenities):

  • dellagocasinoimagesThe $440 million Del Lago Casino in Waterloo-Tyre NY (Sullivan County) opens February 1, 2017, a week before the Rivers Casino; click here for a recent article about it, and click on the collage at the head of this sentence for views of del Lago.

update (Feb. 1, 2017): Del Lago opened today at 10:30 AM. On Syracuse.com, the website of the Syracuse Post-Standard, you can find a “first look” video shot two days ago. Here is a photo taken on January 30 for Syracuse.com by Dennis Nett, showing that the final result is faithful to the original rendition:

dellagocasino30jan2017

  • tiogacasinocollage Tioga Downs Casino, in Nichols NY, has been revamped (with a $122 million capital investment) and is already opened (since December 2016) in the Southern Tier, with a “country-fair themed” experience; click the collage to the right for more images of Tioga.
  • saratogacasino [on left] The upgraded Saratoga Casino and Raceway [FAQs], which is about 22 miles up Rt. 50 from Schenectady, is located in a proven tourist town that offers good taste, upscale shopping, and history; it is still a “racino”, but has over 1700 slot machines and electronic table games;
  • montreigncasinovThe Montreign Casino at Monticello (image on right), scheduled to open early next year, with a much larger budget [$1.3 billion when the complex is completed] than Rivers Casino in Schenectady, and the vision of renewing the Catskills as a top-level tourist destination, with a four-star hotel (and a less pricey one being built in its expansive entertainment center); and, of course,
  • turning-stone-casino The Oneida National tribal casino-resort Turning Stone at Verona, NY, is 24-years old and doing $20 million in upgrades to compete with del Lago; and
  • FallsViewFallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, ON Canada, opened in 2004 as a $1 billion investment. It is owned by the Government of Ontario, and managed by a consortium that includes a company owned by Neil Bluhm, the original developer of Fallsview, and the primary owner of Rush Street Gaming. [image on the right]

In an Appendix at the bottom of this posting, I have compiled the distances of the various casinos from Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, Ithaca, Kingston, Rochester, Syracuse, Watertown, and Utica. Here are the distance figures for Syracuse:

  • from Syracuse NY
  • to Del Lago: 43 miles
  • to Turning Stone: 89 miles
  • to Tioga Downs: 104 miles
  • to Rivers Casino/Schenectady 156 miles
  • to Monticello/Montreign: 164 miles
  • to Fallsview Casino, Niagara Falls, Canada: 165 miles
  • to Saratoga Casino: 187 miles
casinoscomparecollage

three new upstate choices: at Schenectady, Waterloo/Tyre & Monticello (click to enlarge)

Taste is, of course, very subjective, and I do not expect universal agreement on which casino design is “better,” more attractive, classier, “more tasteful,” most likely to sway potential customers, etc. As a longtime resident of the Schenectady Stockade historic district, a photographer, and sometime haiga-haiku poet, I am especially drawn to things that are visually attractive in a low-key, classical way, but also at times to visually striking scenes. As I have said often over the past two years (e.g., here and there), for my money, Schenectady’s Rivers Casino looks like a flashy-tacky version of a 20th Century shopping mall’s cineplex wing. (Others have pointed out that Schenectady actually has a far more attractive cineplex downtown; and better looking gas stations, too.) It looks like a humdrum regional (maybe even local) attraction; boxes next to or on top of boxes. For me, the competing casinos seem visually much more “attractive” (able to attract).

riverscasino-erieapproach

a look at Erie Blvd.

Indeed, many people who are inclined to be kinder than I in their assessment of our Casino’s visual appeal, probably would come to the same conclusion. That’s without contrasting the eyesores greeting visitors on the way to and from Mohawk Harbor along Erie Boulevard (see collage to the right) with the physical setting in the vicinity of Montreign, del Lago, Saratoga, Tioga, etc.

In June of 2015, when there was still plenty of time to get Schenectady’s casino design “right”, or at least adequate as a true tourist destination, we raised many questions in a posting titled “why does Schenectady get Rush Street’s scraps?“:

MinorLeagueSchdy

Rush Street designs

  It seems obvious that a “destination resort casino” should be designed to look and feel exciting and extraordinary.  The Gazette editorial board thinks so, and so [purportedly] does our Planning Commission.  Why, then, has Rush Street Gaming handed us two three minor league designs, just boxes on boxes, and a casino complex easily relegated to the realm of humdrum regional facilities? It is not because Rush Street does not know how to put a little sparkle or class in a casino design [click on collage to the right, and read the full posting].


Our first guess as to why Rush Street does not try very hard for Schenectady is that it has had our “leaders” fawning over it ever since the first rumor of a casino was in the air early last year.  This morning’s Schenectady Gazette suggests another reason: As with the earlier zoning amendments, the normal Planning Commission process has been aborted (hijacked?), with the skids greased by the Mayor to make sure Galesi and Rush Street never have to wait very long to get their wish list fulfilled, and with public input stifled whenever possible. . .

For discussion and details on the Planning Commission’s many acts of omission in reviewing momentous changes to the City’s Waterfront Zoning provisions (listed here) and casino design requirements, see “Schenectady’s waterfront zoning: a rubber-stamp in a Company Town” (Jan. 29, 2015; short URL: http://tinyurl.com/CasinoTown). And, see “McCarthy only wants snowmen on his planning commission” (Feb. 09, 2016, which in part stated:

Yesterday [in another February 8th disaster for our City], Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy made public his decision not to re-appoint to the Planning Commission its newly-chosen chair, Matthew Cuevas, ending Cuevas’ service after more than two decades. Clearly, the Mayor is not interested in keeping a Planning Commissioner, especially one with the powers of the Chair, who is actively interested in enforcing the zoning laws, fulfilling their promise to protect the interests of all residents of Schenectady, and not merely those of the Mayor’s favorite few applicants and their proposals. . . .

update (March 16, 2016): Our sheep-herding Mayor continues his deterrent-minded culling of the flock on his volunteer regulatory boards. Of course, he is not culling out the weak, he is removing the independent members who refuse to act like sheep. See Faces changing on Schenectady planning board (Times Union, by Paul Nelson, March 15, 2016; subscription req’d). The Mayor has failed to renew the appointment of Planning Commissioner Thomas Carey, who was the only member to vote No last year on the Site Plan review of the Casino compound plans. . . .

[Similarly,] Speaking about the Mayor’s failure to re-appoint herself and fellow Historic Commission member Frank Donegan, [former Chair] Marilyn Sassi told TU reporter Paul Nelson:

“We believed it’s because we spoke out against several projects the mayor is in favor of and he’s just eliminating anybody that doesn’t agree with him,” said Sassi . . “Right now, I’m relieved because I don’t want to have any part of a rubber stamp board, I want to be free to be able to express my feelings and concerns.”

flexibleharbor Another reason for the humdrum design was suggested to me by an outgoing City Council member, and raised by others: If the Schenectady Casino fails, the owner of the land, The Galesi Group, wants the buildings left on the site to be easily converted into almost any new use — from big box store to light industrial use, to small shops or offices, etc. The last thing Mr. Galesi wants on his land if the Rivers Casino fails is a building that “looks like a casino”.  Under this scenario, Rivers Casino is so iffy a project, that we got a casino compound that could be walked away from without too much of a mess for its landlord — a second-rate design in case Plan B is needed in the not too distant future.

GEsignBlDice Rather than acting as if “Schenectady” were the Mohawk language equivalent to “Second-rate-City”, or submissively resigning itself to the status of a mendicant Casino-run Company Town, there were many ways that a vigilant City Council and Planning Commission (or Metroplex), could have ensured that the City of Schenectady got a quality design for its casino, as a true tourist destination. First, of course, they could have used the tremendous leverage they possessed as the host City. Rush Street Gaming needed City Council approval of its application to the Racing Commission for a casino license. Rush Street also desired major changes to our zoning laws to develop its casino without restrictions meant to protect the community. Other cities, as is the universal practice in the industry, take advantage of this leverage to provide benefits for the residents and community. Asking for a quality casino design — which would benefit the casino owner as well as the City — would have been more than appropriate.

Next, our political and business leaders could have simply orchestrated public pressure to achieve an improved design, as when the universally disliked “factory-retro look” was rejected by the community. The very minor tweaks to that plan that resulted in our current design should also have been strongly rejected.

More fundamental and direct, however, was using the Site Planning process to require that the casino design live up to the expectations, and certainly not detract from, such things as the upscale image that The Galesi Group had been creating for its mixed-use Mohawk Harbor development, and the Metroplex ongoing renewal of downtown, along with capitalizing on (and preserving) the appeal of the historic Stockade Historic District, a gem merely one-half mile down Front Street.

According to a February 2015 Gazette article, “Schenectady City Council mulls zoning for Mohawk Harbor: Riggi wants city to reiterate Planning Commission’s authority”, even Corporation Council Carl Falotico confirmed the Planning Commission’s site plan authority:

“Falotico stressed that the commission has the ability to evaluate the aesthetic visual impact of the project even if the plans satisfy zoning requirements.”

 

What a site plan accomplishes “The purpose of site plan regulations is to ensure that the development of individual parcels of land do not have an adverse impact on adjacent properties or the surrounding neighborhood. Such regulations also ensure that the parcel’s development fits properly into the community and conforms to its planning objectives. The development of individual parcels must conform to the provisions of local zoning which contain use and dimensional requirements for site development. Zoning, however, does not contain specifications regulating the details of a site’s development that protect, for example, the design of vehicular access to the site, the provision of needed landscape features, the location of parking areas, and the architectural features of buildings. Site plan specifications go beyond those of zoning, and protect adjacent areas and the community’s residents from flooding and erosion, traffic congestion and accidents, unsightly design, noise pollution, and the erosion of neighborhood character. This is their distinct purpose.”

Conclusion: Schenectady deserves a spectacular design for its casino. From the start, Rush Street’s competitors understood a destination casino must look special, while our applicant seemed to be willing to settle for a very modest “regional” casino look, and the City Hall yes-persons failed to ask for something better. Local business leaders were quite surprised to learn at a recent meeting with casino management that the primary geographic market targeted by Rivers Casino was only a 60-mile radius. Sadly, that fits in with the casino design they have given us.

The result will surely be far less revenue, and trickle-down tourist dollars, than the City and County assumed when they readily caved in to the Casino Gangs’ every demand and proposal. The Upstate, and soon Massachusetts, rivals of Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor must be pleased. Our community will now have to rely on local residents spending undue amounts of their disposable (as well as indispensable) income to keep Rivers Casino successful enough for Rush Street to want to stay. That is not exactly the future Schenectady deserves; unless, we deserve the leaders we elect and the future they create.

APPENDIX – Distances from various cities to the casinos

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Rivers Casino will open February 8, 2017

casinosignalot

The Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor, in Schenectady, announced today that it will open for business on February 8, 2017, a Wednesday. See Gazette article, dated Nov. 16, 2016) The Gazette tells us:

The grand opening date was revealed at an event outside the casino, which is located on the Mohawk Harbor site along Erie Boulevard. Casino executives and local leaders popped champagne and celebrated the announcement as a milestone for the region.

The most recent estimate for the opening had been for March. The del Lago Resort Casino in Tyre, Seneca County, New York, has announced a February 1, 2017 opening. (By the way, earlier this month, del Lago made a $100,000 donation to promote workforce diversity) The Tioga Downs Casino, in Nichols NY, which has expanded from its racino status, opened as a full casino on December 2, 2016; the Montreign Casino, at Monticello NY, is expected to open in March 2018.

Two thoughts after viewing the Casino today from Erie Boulevard and Front Street:

  1. img_2604 The Casino compound still looks more like the cineplex end of a 1990’s shopping mall than an international or national tourist destination. (see photo on the right) [follow-up (Jan. 19, 2017): See “casino choices in Upstate New York: who will choose Schenectady?“, which compares casino designs among the competing casinos.]
  2. As we pointed out often at this website and in submissions to the Planning Commission and City Council, Rush Street and Galesi were clearly misleading our community when they insisted that the Casino could not be seen from Erie Boulevard, because the STS Steel building was in the way. (see, e.g. our posting “phony pylon excuse“) The invisibility of the Casino and its rooftop signage from Erie was the excuse given for the demand that Rush Street be able to erect an 80′ x 39′ pylon sign structure. City Council and the Planning staff and Commission never challenged that bold claim, and changed the Zoning Code to accommodate such a monster pylon (which Rush Street has never promised not to build). If they were willing to deceive on something so easily shown to be untrue, what other misleading claims has the Casino Gang made? Revenue projections? Traffic flow?

 img_2605

. . . above and below: Rivers Casino viewed from Erie Boulevard . ..

img_2598

follow-up: We felt a strong need to comment on the fact that February 8 is the anniversary of the Schenectady Massacre of 1690. See our posting “Schenectady’s infamous February 8th“.

third time is a bore

AOA-rivers_casino_schenectady_rendering_v3_back Rush Street Gaming released its third design proposal for the Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor this morning and it is, frankly, a bore. (Image at the left is a view of the riverside patio and the Casino hotel). The Gazette and the Times Union’s Business Buzz Blog only have two images to show us. The TU post pairs the peek at the 3rd version with similar images from the 2nd version. (click for our post on the 2nd Design) There is apparently no broad rendition of the entire casino facility or compound available, which seems to be one more slight for the public. Here is the front entrance to the Casino as released today:

AOA-rivers_casino_schenectady_rendering_v3_front

 And, here’s an Open Letter to the Gasino Gang from a disgruntled resident of Schenectady and its Stockade District [me]:

Dear Mr. Galesi and Mr. Bluhm:

We want Mohawk Harbor to be pedestrian-friendly, but we don’t want the design to be pedestrian.

“Schenectady” does not mean “doormat” or “dustpan” in the Mohawk Language. Treat us with a lot more respect, please.

s/ Man on the Street and on the Web

Haley Vicarro at the Gazette referred to the above design as “the third and presumable final draft of the Rivers Casino.” (Schenectady Daily Gazette, “New look for Schenectady casino revealed“, July 9, 2015)  Rush Street has consistently believed and acted as if the public’s input is irrelevant; sadly, so has City Hall. I hope there will be another groundswell of opinion, keeping in mind that:

More commentary is surely to follow. Please leave a (polite) comment with your opinion or suggestion.  update: Michael DeMasi at Albany Biz Journal uses his headline to tell the story; see “New Schenectady casino design: how “brick” became a four-letter-word” (July 9, 2015). And, thanks once again to All Over Albany for providing high-resolution versions of the new renderings, plus encoring the earlier versions.

– additional media reaction well worth a look: (1) Sara Foss in the Sunday Gazette, “casino drawings speak volumes“, July 12, 2015; (2) a Sunday Gazette editorial, Casino design is better, but public needs to see more” D2, July 12, 2015; (3) Chris Churchill’s frankly insightful Sunday column in the Times Union, “Let’s be honest about the (redesigned) Schenectady casino” (July 12, 2015);

p.s. VegasCompareCollage2 The Casino Pylon: Wrong Size/Wrong Place. Please don’t forget to check out our campaign to topple (before it gets built) the 80′ x 38′ eyesore and safety hazard Rush Street wants to erect, looming over Erie Blvd. from the corner of Front & Nott Streets. Links to relevant posting can be found at the top of “pylon envy?“.

follow-up (Thursday eve., July 9,  6:30): Could Rush Street have done any less work re-designing this facility (or spent less time and money)? Actually, they were honest, they just “tweaked” it.

detail2ndDesignEntrance . . . casino3rdDesignEntrance

– – the fake second story wall and support for the sign were removed from the 2nd design and colors were changed.

 – Casino2ndDesignRearPatio – – The tweaking in the rear patio was even less significant.

more follow-up (July 10, 2015): Demographics: Commentors at various sites and others chatting about the new renditions have noted that all of the Casino customers are thin, young, hip, white. How does Rush Street plan to make a profit without the Granny Buses rolling in and poor folk spending rent and food money?  Carl Strock (we miss him here in Schenectady!), after pointing out his opposition to casinos as an economic development tool, opines at his TU Blog, “Fantasy customers for Sch’dy casino(July 10, 2015):

Look at them. Look how trim they are. Look how well dressed, the men in dark suits, the women in skirts and heels. All of them looking like they just stepped out of a Fifth Avenue shop window. I would say to the project developers, if you can guarantee us a crowd like this, I don’t care how you design your casino.