good at gaming the system: from cash cow to cow chips

When it comes to gaming the political system for tax breaks and special perks, it’s hard to beat the gaming industry. In New York State, there are different rules and tax rates for its full-blown casinos, video-gaming racinos, and Indian casinos. Such factors help complicate the casino industry’s tax-gaming game, making for increased melodrama, campaign contributions, and lobbyist income.

Last week, the Times Union reported, in Harness tracks, racinos, feel the heat from casinos” (by Rick Karlin, June 18, 2017), that:

 Jeff Gural [note: major contributor to Gov. Cuomo and], majority owner of the troubled Vernon Downs harness track and video lottery game “racino” in Vernon, Oneida County, said he would have to close his doors this fall if he didn’t get a tax break.

And, today, the Schenectady Gazette published “2 harness track racinos look to state for relief“ (by John Cropley, June 19, 2017), and noted:

Two harness racing tracks that host electronic casino operations are looking to the state for help amid increased competition from the proliferation of casinos across upstate New York.

One piece of legislation would allow Saratoga Casino Hotel in Saratoga Springs to use 4 percent of its net win for capital improvements.

Another would increase the percentage of the net win retained by Vernon Downs Casino Hotel in Vernon, near Utica.. . .

Both bills have been approved by the state Senate but have been sitting in committee in the state Assembly. The 2017 legislative session is scheduled to end Wenesday.

In response to this year’s crop of Gaming Groveling and Gambits, the Times Union published a Sunday editorial, “No subsidies for the casinos” (premium online content).

The Issue:

Citing financial problems, an upstate gaming venue seeks a tax break.

The Stakes:

Taxpayers should not have to support cash cows that morph into albatrosses.

“Lets be clear what a tax cut means: A loss of revenue that other taxpayers have to make up. It will be what casino proponents insisted would never happen: state taxpayers subsidizing gaming halls that were supposed to be cash cows.”

The TU editorial concludes: “Certainly it’s fair to find equitable ways to spread the benefits so that hard-pressed local economies like Oneida County’s don’t suffer. What’s unfair is to ask taxpayers to continually cover venues for the bad bets they’re proving to be.”

No matter what happens in this Legislative session, I’m betting that billionaire Neil Bluhm’s Rush Street Gaming minions here at Schenectady’s Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor are already looking into ways to reduce their gaming and property taxes and gain advantages over their casino and racino competition. That is what they have always done at other casino venues, in good times and bad.  Best bets for Boo-Hooing from Rush Street:

  • using the failure to meet their revenue projections as the justification for seeking a reduction in the gaming tax revenue rate
  • pointing to lower gaming tax revenue rates at racinos and at other casinos (under Legislative compromises meant to aid locations in less populated or poorer areas) as “unfair” competitive advantages for their competitors
  • challenging property tax assessments whether or not they are having financial success

Unlike casino owners elsewhere, Rush Street has made no promise in Schenectady about putting off challenging property assessments. Here’s what the Worster Massachusetts VoteNoSlots group said a couple years ago about Rush Street and taxes:

At each of their four casinos, Rush Street Gaming has either fought to have its property assessment reduced, or threatened to reduce it:

  • As soon as Rush Street opened Riverwalk Casino in Vicksburg, Mississippi, it fought to have its property assessment reduced from $78 million to $30 million.
  • Almost as soon as they opened Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, they began lobbying to have their property assessment HALVED, and have continued to do it every single year.
  • The city of Philadelphia also was involved in a legal dispute with Sugarhouse Casino over property tax.
  • If the state (of Illinois) approves a Chicago casino or slots at horse tracks, then Bluhm wants to be able to add more slot machines and pay lower tax rates in Des Plaines. “We absolutely need both,” Bluhm said when asked whether he would accept one without the other. “We couldn’t possibly survive. The numbers won’t work. If we just lower tax rates and couldn’t expand, we would be crushed.”

As we reported here when arguing against naming the primary road into Mohawk Harbor “Rush Street,” after failing in their campaign to achieve the 60% reduction in their property tax assessment they had sought in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Rush Street sold their Riverwalk Casino, in 2012, just four years after it opened.

But, Rush Street Gaming doesn’t have to be doing poorly to try to avoid taxes. As reported in some detail just last year at BetterGov.org, in “Rivers Casino’s Jackpot: $1 Million Property Tax Break” (by Chuck Newbauer & Sandy Bergo):

 The owners of the wildly successful Rivers Casino in Des Plaines have received more than $4 million in property tax cuts since opening nearly five years ago, by aggressively arguing that the property was worth tens of millions of dollars less than it cost to buy and build on.

Since 2012, Rivers has reported annual revenues of more than $400 million, after winnings, state records show. Its revenues are twice as large as any of the other nine Illinois casinos.

Despite their success, the Rivers owners claim the value of the casino and parking garage has declined, justifying tax relief. . . .

Tellingly, several successive reductions by the elected Cook County Review Board (from $104 M to $88 M each year) “is not enough” for Rivers Casino in Des Plaines: “The owners have gone to court seeking refunds of taxes paid in three previous years, arguing the assessments are still too high.” Rush Street’s primary owner Neil Bluhm is a well-known contributor and “bundler” in the Democratic Party. Although he did not donate to the Cook County’s elected Board members, his tax attorneys and appraisal firms have given substantial amounts.

The BetterGov.org article also makes a point similar to the Times Union Editors:

Whatever the case, the casino’s gain is their neighbors’ loss. Home owners and other property owners in Des Plaines and some surrounding communities have to pick up the slack to fund budgets for local schools, parks and other local government expenses to make up for the Rivers tax cuts.

Beyond property assessments, Rush Street Gaming is definitely not shy about efforts to change the rules in place when it received its casino license. For example, it has tried strenuously to fend off competition to its successful SugarHouse Casino from a second Philadelphia casino, although the State Legislature had for many years envisioned the second casino. First, it said the State Racing Commission could not re-issue the license after the first licensee failed to get necessary funding. That stalled the competition for years, before the argument was rejected by the State Supreme Court. “Pa. High Court Affirms Propriety of 2nd Philly Casino License” (Law360.ocm, by Alex Wolf). Nonetheless, SugarHouse’s lawyers have raised other issues in court, which have stalled the large South Philadelphia casino project even further. See  “Whatever happened with that South Philly casino?” (Billpenn.com, by Anna Orso, Jan. 6, 2017). Expectations are that SugarHouse and the other plaintiffs will lose again, but its Rush Street owners have “won” several years of added profits by operating as the only casino in that big town.

  . . click for cash cow cartoons & cow chips cartoons 
From Cash Cow to Cow Chips, Are they Too Important to Let Fail in Schenectady? Should Rivers Casino Schenectady start to seem more like a Cow Chip Factory than a Cash Cow, you can count on the local leaders who bet their reputations on the Mohawk Harbor casino to help in efforts at the State and local level to seek subsidies of various kinds to alleviate Mr. Bluhm’s suffering. It would be an amusing drama to watch, if it weren’t so important (and predictable). Stay tuned.

another nadir on the River (with updates & lowdowns)

(update: June 23, 2017): Rivers Casino in Schenectady set yet another new low for revenue generation in the week ending June 11, 2017, its 18th week in operation at Mohawk Harbor. Its net revenues were $2,062,162, down 23% from the prior week, and almost $100K below its previous low-point.

RiversRev23June2017

. . is our favorite Cash Cow becoming a Cow Chip factory? casinocowchips

. . and see, “psst: the casino cash cow has too many calves” (June 21, 2014)

Original Posting

 In its 15th week in operation, Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady set a stunning new low for overall net revenues at: $2,129,115, with slots income also the lowest to date, and poker table GRR under $100,000 [$99,503]. Here’s screen shot of its Report for the week ending May 21, 2017, which was posted late due to the Memorial Day weekend:

Meanwhile, at the Times Union, reporter Paul Nelson’s latest article is headlined “Poker winner nets $46k at Rivers Casino” (online May 29, 2017). I do not know whether that is a lot of money for a tournament that Rivers Casino General Manager Mary Cheeks says “attracted 1,095 players from seven states and Canada, exceeding expectations.” Ms. Cheeks is also quoted saying:

 “We had a fantastic turnout for the Capital Region Classic, and we heard a lot of positive feedback from players who have been looking for big poker tournaments in this area for years,”

Of course, this is the same Casino that keeps telling us how satisfied it is with revenues and attendance so far, despite averaging far below, and never yet meeting, the weekly average GRR it needs to make the lowered expectations it projected for its first year in operation.

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record decline at Rivers Casino Schenectady

 

For the fifth time in six weeks, week-to-week net revenues at Rivers Casino in Schenectady declined last week. [see the composite Report to the right; and the Official Weekly Report.] The 19.8% fall in revenues, down to $2,897,721, was the largest to date at the Casino, which opened February 8. While Rivers Schenectady saw a significant decline, revenues at nearby Saratoga Casino edged up 1.8% to a Net Win of $2,858,905. (Compare the figures reported March 31, 2017 by the Times Union’s Eric Anderson, here; and click here for our prior revenue coverage)

  •  Rivers also reported its Revenue Tax distributions for February 2017, showing that Schenectady County and the City of Schenectady each received $191,991 as their home community share of revenues paid to the State. The average daily GRR for the opening weeks in February were, however, significantly higher than the daily average since then. Nonetheless, the payment of $191,991 for the 22-day partial month of February would result in an annualized total of $3,185,305. When selling the Schenectady Casino to the Racing Commission and the public, Rush Street (and Mayor Gary McCarthy) projected payment of $4.1 million each (22% more) to the City and the County once revenues stabilized.

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update (Saturday, April 8, 2017): The Schenectady Gazette covered revenue and tax distribution for February and march in an article in today’s paper, “Rivers Casino revenues up in March, still behind projectionsFigures from first full month of operation reported” (Brett Samuels, April 8, 2017). As I wrote in a Comment left at the online webpage for the story (which also suggests other issues needing coverage):

deskdudeThe real news is not that — OMG!! — revenues for a 31-day month were higher than for a 20-day month, but that revenues have been down five of the past six weeks. In fact, the decline last week was 19.8%, while Saratoga Casino had about a 2% increase.

The Gazette article does give a nice summary of the projection shortfall issue (while also suggesting reasons revenues might rise as the year progresses):

If the current pace of just over $200,000 per month continues, the city and county would take in about $2.3 million for 2017, falling well short of Rush Street Gaming’s projections submitted in its 2014 application with the Gaming Commission. . .

That economic impact analysis, which included five-year projections for gaming revenues, estimated the low-end gaming revenue for the city and county would be about $3.3 million each for the city and county.

In preparing its 2017 budget, Schenectady County used the low-end revenue estimate, $3.3 million, and pro-rated it to a March opening. That would leave the county expecting about $2.75 million in casino revenue this year.

Rivers revenues down 4th straight week (with updates)

 Schenectady’s Rivers Casino at Mohawk Harbor faced its first major snow storm last week. The storm virtually closed the City down on Tuesday, March 14, but roads were serviceable the next day, with the nearby Stockade neighborhood (especially Front Street, which borders the casino complex) enjoying its quickest snow removal experience in memory. It is no surprise that Gross Gaming Revenues at Rivers Schenectady declined from the prior week’s record low figures, making it four straight weeks of falling GGR. In fact, the 1% reduction was less severe than I had expected, with $2,757,738 generated. The image at the head of this paragraph shows the weekly totals since Rivers opened in Schenectady on February 8.

The distribution of the revenues looks interesting to this non-expert observer:

  • slots revenues were down 17.6%, falling to $1,571,972
  • table game revenues were up 44.6%, soaring to $1,060,418

Did grandma decide to stay home, while the high-rollers were snowed in at Mohawk Harbor overnight the day of the storm?

. . you can find the weekly Rivers Casino revenue stats, usually refreshed on Friday morning, here: http://tinyurl.com/RiversSchdyRevs

. . see what do those Casino revenue figures mean? (

newspaper update (Monday, March 27, 2017): As of 1 PM today, the Gazette continues to avoid mentioning this streak of weekly revenue declines. Thankfully, the Times Union did report the revenue picture today, in “Area casinos had another down week” (by Eric Anderson, online on March 27, 2017). The TU notes that Saratoga Casino saw its third weekly decline, and “Rivers reported its fourth consecutive weekly decline”, noting “The most recent figures likely were depressed by a massive snowstorm that struck the Capital Region March 14.” TU also explained that even Rivers Casino’s best week so far does not meet the weekly average it would need to make their “stabilized” 2019 revenues projection. 

  • RiversSchdyRevs31Mar2017 update (March 31, 2017): For the week ending March 26, 2017, Schenectady’s Rivers Casino had its first increase in revenues in over a month. The total GRR, $3,613, 222, was the best take for the Casino since its first full week, with a 31% increase over the prior week’s dismal GRR, which was the Casino’s lowest ever. As you can see from the composite below of the Rivers Casino Total Gross Gaming Revenues Report, there were significant increases in slots (16%) and table games (57%!), with poker revenues up almost 9%.

RiversCasinoRevs31Mar2017

As expected, the Schenectady Gazette never reported that Rivers Casino had four straight weeks of GRR decline, but I’m betting this increase will be up soon at their website and in Saturday’s hardcopy newspaper.


LadyBug14Mar2017 p.s.
“Walkable Schenectady”?  Our Mayor likes to brag about our “walkable City”, as do the gents at Metroplex. A week after the mid-March snow storm ended, many crosswalks in downtown Schenectady were clogged at the curb with snow, and many sidewalks in downtown Schenectady were left unshoveled. The snow had stopped Wednesday morning, but on Saturday evening, March 18, I made the mistake of trying to walk from my Stockade home up Front Street, to Mohawk Harbor and then up Erie Blvd. I spent a lot of time precariously switching from sidewalk to street.

 Front St. at N. Church. . DSCF2601

I was particularly surprised at how difficult it was to be on foot near the Casino.

DSCF2589 . . [L] this is what confronted you on foot at the intersection of Front Street and Rush Street, if you wanted to head toward Erie Boulevard.

DSCF2595 . . DSCF2597 . . Once at the rotary at Rush St. and Erie Blvd., you had some snow climbing to do to get to the Nott St. side of the rotary, with an unshovelled sidewalk once across the street.

DSCF2599-001 . . [L] Most daunting was trying to head south on Erie Boulevard on foot. Once past the overhead walkway, virtually all of the sidewalk had the full 19 inches of snow, all the way to Stewart’s, at Green Street. If a business had shoveled at its driveway, the curb at the intersection and crosswalk was piled even higher. I was left to walking at sunset on the side of a very busy road, with fast traffic and lots of puddles. Not pedestrian-friendly, Mr. Mayor. Not a good introduction to visitors on the ease of getting from Mohawk Harbor to our much-touted downtown Renaissance.

a wicked concert cartel?

 An article in today’s Schenectady Daily Gazette suggests that fears we expressed and explained in 2014, here and there, were warranted as to the likely anticompetitive and anti-consumer nature of the so-called Fair Game Theater Coalition. See “Rivers Casino, Proctors team up for entertainment: ‘In no way, shape or form do I feel like we’re competitors” (Daily Gazette, by Brett Samuels, A1, March 8, 2017). The article highlights the lack of rivalry and the depth of cooperation between Proctors and Rivers Casino, and the importance of the Upstate Theatre Coalition for a Fair Game in nurturing this chummy state of affairs between entities that clearly are two of the most prominent members of the live-entertainment and leisure activity market in Schenectady and the Capital Region.

Ironically, Proctors CEO Philip Morris seems to be bragging about the very kinds of restrictions that we warned about back in 2014, when we said:

feelin’ blue

 “[T]he “Fair Game” Coalition (a/k/a The Concert Cartel) may end up achieving joint booking and venue-size limitations, and a revenue-sharing agreement with each of the 3 or 4 winning casinos.  That could mean the equivalent of territorial exclusivity, and joint booking and ticket pricing, for all/each of FairGame members, across all of the eastern portion of Upstate New York, through midState locations such as Utica and Syracuse, and apparently stretching to their members in the Western end of the State.”

On the one hand, Proctors CEO Philip Morris asserts in the Gazette article that Proctors and Rivers Casino are not competitors (a contention that would clearly by rejected by objective economists and antitrust experts); on the other hand, he makes it clear that the Fair Game theater coalition is protecting its members from casino competition across Upstate New York. According to the Gazette:

Without the Fair Game agreement, Morris said, he likely wouldn’t be feeling quite as optimistic about the relationship between the two entertainment entities moving forward.

slicingthepie “It set the stage for a collaboration that probably was critical for any next step,” Morris said. “I think if there was no Fair Game, we probably wouldn’t be doing the booking, and we might be in competitive mode.”

Casino applicants were encouraged under the Act authorizing new commercial casinos to enter into arrangements with local entertainment venues, demonstrating that the local casino “actively supports the mission and the operation of the impacted entertainment venues.” [§1320(3)(2)(D)]. The members of the Fair Game coalition were expected to help their members and the applicants gather necessary information that would facilitate such agreements. Coalition members were not given the freedom to eliminate competition among themselves, nor to prevent competition from all casinos within a large (seemingly unlimited) region. Consumers will surely lose out, with fewer choices and higher prices.

trust-buster needed

In 2014, I asked the New York Attorney General’s Antitrust Bureau to take a look at the operation of Fair Game. Although they replied to me that a preliminary investigation was being undertaken, no further communications were received from the AG suggesting that Fair Game raised antitrust concerns. In 2017, the casinos are in operation in Tyre (near Syracuse), Tioga Downs (near Binghamton), and Schenectady. The AG can now see in more detail and in action the restrictions adopted by Fair Game’s group of the largest Upstate entertainment venues and by each of the new casinos. I hope the Antitrust Bureau will therefore take a close look this time. Restrictions that unnecessarily limit competition between and among the theater-arena venues and the new casinos should be barred, allowing consumers the broadest array of entertainment and location options, and hopefully the best value for their entertainment dollars.

The creation of the Fair Game theater coalition, with its potential to limit competition from casinos and other major venues, transformed Proctors CEO from a strong opponent of having a casino in town, to a fervent casino supporter. Does any one believe this cooperation will result in more entertainment choices and lower ticket prices (beyond token gimmicks and give-aways) for the people of our community? Moreover, will lesser-known entertainment venues and options benefit, or just lose market share to the Big Guys in Town? Did our Legislature really mean to greatly reduce competition across the state between and among casinos and major entertainment venues, when it tried to reassure theaters like Proctors that they would not be run out of business if a casino came to town?

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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 . ..

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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.