For a generation of Schenectady residents, the 60-acre site along Erie Boulevard was nothing more than a rusting reminder of the municipality’s legacy as “The city that lights and hauls the world.”
The American Locomotive Company, or Alco, manufactured railway and military equipment from 1849 until it closed in 1969. For the next 40 years, the site was repurposed for other industrial uses.
“Anyone who’s 55 or younger can’t remember when Alco was open,” said Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority. “We thought it was very important for our economic development team that, as much as we tackled downtown, we wanted to fix the Alco site.”
The plot of land where factories once churned out train engines and military tanks is about to hit a milestone in its transformation when the Rivers Casino and Resort opens on Wednesday at noon.
The $330 million project from Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming is the result of partnerships among city and county leaders in Schenectady, a competitive drive to beat out other potential Capital Region sites and a handshake between executives.
The Galesi Group purchased the old Alco site in 2010 when it was a blank piece of paper, Galesi Group CEO David Buicko said. The property was labeled a Brownfield site, meaning Galesi would receive tax breaks to perform extensive — and expensive — cleanup on the land.
There were buildings to be demolished and thousands of tons of chemicals to be removed, but Buicko saw potential in the riverfront setting.
The casino itself was never envisioned when developers initially drew up plans to revitalize the Mohawk Harbor. Instead, the Galesi Group’s master plan consisted of housing, retail and possibly hotels.
“It wasn’t even a thought because it wasn’t legal at the time,” Buicko said.
Voters approved legislation in 2013 that allowed for the construction of four commercial casinos across New York state, including one to be built in the Capital Region. That opened the door for an alteration to the Mohawk Harbor master plan.
“This project was happening with or without the casino, but the casino helped us step it up a little bit and make it more attractive,” Buicko said.
Buicko felt the northern end of the Mohawk Harbor site was an asset with its proximity to the water, but he didn’t know much about casino development. After speaking with Mayor Gary McCarthy, Gillen and others, the coalition of local leaders began to kick around the concept of bringing a casino to Schenectady.
When the city decided to enter the fray as a possible casino site, leaders reached out to numerous operators.
“We had our pick of the litter, all the major operators were interested in submitting applications in New York,” Gillen said.
But there was a connection between Buicko and Neil Bluhm, chairman of Rush Street Gaming.
Rush Street was looking to expand its business, and sought out opportunities when New York legalized casino expansion, said Joe Scibetta, vice president of development and operations at the company.
Bluhm and other company executives drove onto the snow-covered harbor site in December 2013, and felt the location was meant to be for the Rush Street’s newest venture.
“They met Dave and the Galesi Group, fell in love with the site, shook their hand and that started the project of us developing the casino and developing the entire project,” Scibetta said.
“We talked to seven or eight (operators), but when we shook hands, we shook hands,” Buicko added. “We had a deal.”
For the deal to come to fruition, Schenectady still had to earn one of the four gaming licenses. It competed against applications from Schoharie County, Rensselaer and East Greenbush in the Capital Region.
In its pitch in the summer of 2014, Schenectady officials cited the city’s desperate need for an economic boost, the casino’s accessibility from downtown and its location along the waterfront as part of a larger effort to revive a long-abandoned industrial site.
The city’s efforts did not go uncontested. Several Stockade residents expressed concerns over how their neighborhood would be impacted by its proximity to the casino. Others worried about potential traffic congestion or crime increases that might come with the gambling hall.
For the most part, though, city leaders look back on the proposal process and note that Schenectady residents were largely supportive of the idea, something that wasn’t the case in other potential host communities, like East Greenbush.
“They bought our story,” Gillen said. “They liked the fact that we were creating more than just a casino.”
From there, things progressed quickly. Construction started almost immediately, with a ceremonial groundbreaking held on Feb. 3, 2016. A grand opening date was set in November: Feb. 8, 2017, roughly one year after the groundbreaking, and about 14 months after the project got the “OK” from state leaders.
It will be the third casino to open of the four that received licenses, with del Lago Resort and Casino in Seneca County opening last week, and Tioga Downs opening in the Southern Tier last December. Montreign Casino and Raceway is expected to open in 2018 in the Catskills.
Rivers is the only casino of the bunch not to be given local tax breaks, though the Mohawk Harbor site as a whole has benefitted from PILOT deals, a Restore NY grant and Regional Economic Development Council awards.
“(Rush Street) was cooperative and that was part of our message that we weren’t going to offer incentives,” Gillen said. “We think that helped us in the selection process too.”
With the grand opening set for Wednesday, officials are expecting thousands of visitors to rush through the casino doors in the first few days. An adjacent 165-room hotel will open in July.
Those involved with the overall Mohawk Harbor development, which will see apartments, offices and retail space open this summer, recognize the spotlight is squarely on Rivers Casino and Resort for the moment, but are quick to point out that the project is just one aspect of a larger renaissance.
“I’m excited. It’s really, when you go inside, you say ‘wow,’” Buicko said. “On the other side, we have a lot of work left to go. As much as that’s one check mark that’s done, there’s a lot of other projects people are continuing to work on.”
The casino: A timeline of rapid development
With the facility set to open this week, here’s a look at significant dates in the process that turned the old American Locomotive Company’s property along Erie Boulevard into the home of Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor.
- June 2010: Galesi Group purchases former Alco site with plans to demolish existing buildings, and possibly construct office space.
- November 2013: New York voters approve legislation to allow four commercial casinos to be built upstate, adding onto existing reservation casinos and racinos.
- September 2014: Schenectady pitches its proposal to state officials in effort to win designation as Capital Region casino site.
- December 2014: State gaming panel recommends Schenectady as Capital Region site to receive casino license, beating out applications from East Greenbush, Rensselaer and Howe Caverns.
- December 2015: State Gaming Commission awards Schenectady and two others gaming licenses, officially allowing project to move forward.
- February 2016: Officials gather for groundbreaking on casino construction at Mohawk Harbor.
- November 2016: Officials announce Rivers Casino and Resort will open on Feb. 8, 2017, almost a year to the day after the ceremonial groundbreaking.
- February 2017: Rivers Casino and Resort opens to the public on Feb. 8, with an adjacent hotel slated to open this summer.