Ombudsman needed to link community, casino operator

While there are some who believe that the siting of a casino is an important cornerstone of the city

The progress being made on the Mohawk Harbor project is exciting.

Redeveloping a previously contaminated piece of property, for decades a blighted waste of a potentially valuable resource, into commercial, residential and recreational space presents a great opportunity for Schenectady.

One element of this project which makes it “different” from our other brownfields redevelopment initiatives is the new $330 million Rivers Casino & Resort.

While there are some who believe that the siting of a casino is an important cornerstone of the city’s and county’s renaissance, there are others who regard it as risky and problematic.

No matter which viewpoint is held today, to maximize the potential benefit in the future, we as a community need to work with the casino, engage one another, and incorporate ourselves into its development and growth. In turn, the casino operator needs to work with the community.

Some will say that the casino is already doing its part, including through the efforts of its community outreach personnel, and that the community, by virtue of the responsibilities being implemented by governmental authorities and others, is already doing its part.

But I think there is more that should be done.

Clearly, a critical goal of all concerned is economic success, and there may be an inclination to rely on the notion that the financial success of the casino equates to financial benefits, and thus success, for residents of the city and county.

I’m of the view, though, that for the long-term success of both the casino and the rest of the community, there should be a mutual involvement and investment that is deeper and richer — founded not only on the throw-off of revenue from the casino but, even more, on an enhanced quality of life.

My idea is to have the various stakeholders in the city and county — government, non-governmental organizations, business interests, and all other residents — working together and agreeing to hire an ombudsman.

The ombudsman, whose services would be paid for by the casino operator, would serve as the funnel and mouthpiece through which community interests concerning the casino can be channeled.

The ombudsman would work for us, the community. Maximum credibility, and thus maximum effectiveness, will result where there are both the perception and the reality that the ombudsman is answerable to the community and has no divided loyalty or competing interest.

I understand that the “community” is not a monolith, but is instead comprised of multiple interests with varied concerns, problems and ideas about opportunities. But the unifying factor is a desire for an enhanced quality of life in Schenectady.

The ombudsman must be a knowledgeable and creative person with a tremendous ability to listen to the many voices of those with a stake in the future of Schenectady and to communicate those hopes and expectations effectively.

Specifically, what I have in mind is a process where, starting as soon as possible, the ombudsman who is selected convenes frequent meetings of the casino operator and representatives of the community to (1) talk, listen and exchange ideas, and (2) work actively, in a spirit of mutual cooperation, to address ideas and concerns and to resolve any problems.

Other forms of communication, such as newspaper columns and bulletins that are distributed frequently, would also be important in keeping the public informed, anticipating areas of potential concern, generating commitment and instilling trust.

In general, the ombudsman would promote economic and community development issues, issues involving public safety, security and services, and transportation, environmental and infrastructure issues.

Taken individually or in the aggregate, they amount to the building blocks of our quality of life.

In addition to being transparent, the more open the ombudsman’s interactions are with the casino operator, the greater the chances the casino’s activities will be perceived as commonplace.

Increased familiarity with the casino’s operations and its personnel will demystify it and make it seem a lot less “different.”

What we need to avoid is the urban renewal failure that was the Canal Square project of 35 years ago. It had little public input up front and, as a result, little public investment in it during its decline.

The example of Proctors is more of what I would like to see — a treasure saved by the community for the community, and just one jewel in what is now an evermore valuable crown of a revitalized downtown.

Simply appointing an ombudsman will not by itself create the quality of life the community is seeking, nor would it be the bulwark for the casino to ward off any downturns it might face. There are too many variables and circumstances at work to suppose there could be one “silver bullet.”

But the ombudsman will help to create the climate in which those goals might be achieved — more easily and for longer.

Ultimately, my feeling is that whatever it takes is worth the effort. We certainly owe it to ourselves to try.

John Greenthal has practiced environmental law for 40 years, first with the Department of Environmental Conservation and now in the private sector, and volunteer-teaches environmental issues and public policy classes at the high school level.

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