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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

Albany made shrewd $11M deal

A few months back, I decreed that the casino competition had entered a new phase that I had dubbed the Shenanigans Phase.

I predicted we were going to see developers and municipalities scramble to demonstrate local support for the casinos they aspired to build. That we were going to see wheeling and dealing, strange alliances and unusual financial arrangements.

Until last week, I was somewhat disappointed with the Shenanigans Phase. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the crooked deals and blatant corruption I anticipated never really came to pass.

Sure, there were a few eyebrow raising developments, such as the East Greenbush Town Board’s unanimous passage of a resolution of local support for a casino despite widespread community opposition. But there was nothing that reeked of outright misconduct. This made the process unexpectedly boring, at least for me.

Well, the city of Albany recently livened things up. Last week, Mayor Kathy Sheehan agreed to support the casino proposal for East Greenbush over a competing bid in Rensselaer. In exchange, the city of Albany will receive $11 million over 10 years, which Sheehan has said will go to Capitalize Albany Corp., an economic development agency. The agreement would also direct 25 percent of the jobs at the East Greenbush casino to Albany residents.

Previously, the city of Rensselaer, which is seeking to build a waterfront casino, offered Albany $10 million over 10 years. While Rensselaer had sought Albany’s exclusive support, East Greenbush did not.

As deals go, these arrangements are pretty easy to criticize, and the Gazette already has. When Rensselaer made its offer, the paper featured an unsigned editorial titled “Casino endorsements shouldn’t be for sale,” and said, “What about this doesn’t sound like a bribe? Is it fair? Is it even legal?”
If it is legal, it probably shouldn’t be.

The state has already laid out a formula for how casino revenue is to be distributed. Ten percent of the state’s revenues will be split between the host county and host municipality, while 10 percent of the state’s tax revenues will go to surrounding counties in the region where the casino is sited.

Why should Albany get even more money than what it’s already slated to receive?

As problematic as I think the Albany-East Greenbush deal is, there’s a part of me that admires it, because it’s just so shrewd. Troy voted to support the East Greenbush casino, as well as the Rensselaer casino, and got nothing in return. Don’t you think they regret not holding out for more?
I also have to give Sheehan credit for looking out for the interests of her city.

As an Albany resident, it’s hard to object to an infusion of $11 million to promote economic development. I can express caveats — the money should be spent wisely, there should be public input, the process should be transparent! — but it’s easy to see why Sheehan struck this deal. Albany has a shrinking tax base; that $11 million could go a long way.

Of course, Albany is not especially unique, as upstate cities go. Troy is a smaller city, but it has similar problems. So do Schenectady and Amsterdam. All of these places know what it’s like to have a shrinking tax base and a need for economic development. All of these communities would benefit from an extra $11 million.

The state Gaming Commission’s Facility Location Board will award licenses within the next couple months, which gives other developers plenty of time to buy the support of nearby municipalities.
Last week, backers of the proposed casino in Rensselaer sought the endorsement of the Montgomery County Legislature; officials said they wanted to hear from other developers before granting it.

If officials there have any sense, they won’t give their endorsement away for nothing. Like Albany, they’ll likely look to get as much as they can.

And while paying for a casino endorsement is wrong, it’s easy to see why communities would accept the money.

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