Donna Lagone has seen firsthand the damaging effects of gambling.
The Schenectady woman, now retired, worked as a substance abuse counselor for 35 years in Las Vegas and on Navajo reservations, among other places.
“My area was called secondary abuse, and it was not easy to see a child beaten by its mother or father because of alcohol, drugs and gambling,” she said. “No money, hunger. Is this what we’re doing to our city?”
Lagone was one of more than 30 people gathered Saturday at Arthur’s Market in the city’s Stockade neighborhood to voice their opposition to the casino proposed for the former American Locomotive Co. site.
David Giacalone, who lives in the Stockade, said he started organizing the event “8 or 9 days ago” when he learned that the Stockade Association had decided to stay neutral on the casino proposal. He also started the website, “No Casino in Schenectady,” and started circulating petitions against the casino that have been signed by more than 100 people.
“And I said, ‘we can’t let people think the Stockade has no opposition,’” he said. “I want to be proud of my city, and I think a casino will make us less proud in many ways of our city.”
The City Council is prepared to vote on the proposal at its 6:30 p.m. meeting Monday. Four out of seven council members have voiced support for a casino in the city, while two others remain undecided. Rush Street Gaming has promised to invest $300 million in the project that would be located along the Mohawk River and employ 1,200.
There are four other places vying for a casino license in the Capital Region — Rensselaer, East Greenbush, Cobleskill and Amsterdam — and local support is required. The state Gaming Commission said a resolution of support must be approved by the host municipality before the June 30 application deadline.
Schenectady’s City Council will also vote on legislation proposed by Councilman Carl Erikson that would reserve the city’s share of the gambling revenue for lowering taxes. Out of a projected $200 million to $250 million in gambling revenue, the county and the city each would receive a projected $5.7 million.
City Councilman Vince Riggi, the only councilman opposed to the casino, was at Arthur’s Saturday. He said that Erickson, who as of Monday was undecided on the vote, is playing a “cute political game.”
“How can anybody vote against that?” he asked, referring to lower taxes.
While the Schenectady County Legislature hosted a public hearing on the issue Monday, Riggi criticized the City Council for not setting its own public hearing before the vote on what he considers “the most important issue” since he started attending council meetings 28 years ago.
“If I want to make it illegal to spit on the sidewalk, that requires a public hearing. By law, according to our corporation counsel, this doesn’t require a public hearing. Maybe legally, but morally?” he said to applause.
Mohamed Hafaz of Schenectady said the process has been rushed. The casino proposal was made public in mid-May, though several politicians and leaders said they had seen the plan weeks before.
“They want to shove this down our throat, and they try to convince us that we will have a property tax break? This is like adding insult to injury,” he said.
On Friday, 22 religious and community leaders issued a statement urging the council to table the casino proposal and set a public hearing. Among those who signed the statement are the Rev. Phillip Grigsby of Schenectady Inner City Ministry, the Rev. Sara Baron of the First United Methodist Church of Schenectady and the Rev. Valerie Ackerman of the Center for Empowering Communities.
“Frankly, we are appalled as religious and community leaders by what is clearly a rush to judgment with minimal community input,” the statement reads.
While there will be no formal public hearing Monday, residents will have a chance to voice their concerns during privilege of the floor shortly before 7 p.m. Casino opponents said Saturday that they planned to rally outside City Hall at 6 p.m.
At Arthur’s on Saturday, Lagone and other opponents said the casino would get much of its business from Schenectady residents, so even if a casino meant lower taxes, the local impact would not be worth the cost.
“I support synergistic economic development — casinos are not synergistic economic development,” said Tom Hodgkins of Schenectady. “They are predatory, extractive industries that have most of their customers from low, socioeconomic roots, and it’s a form of taxing the poor.”
“If they think their taxes are going to be reduced, it’s because they’re going be paying for it out of their own pocket,” he said.
Hafaz said casinos also “prey on elderly people.”
“They greet them at the door, they give them these cards at the door, they track their gambling habits. And when they don’t show up for a while, they send them postcards, ‘We miss you! Come back!’” he said. “And the poor old people, they come back and they lose their money.”
Hodgkins talked about the casino’s “house advantage.”
“You’re guaranteed, in the long run, to lose money,” he said.
Casinos don’t have windows or clocks for a reason, he said, “because they don’t want you to know what time it is. They want to disorient you.”
“So they’re going to put it on the river, but there will be no windows to look at the river,” joked Richard Genest, owner of Arthur’s Market. “So it will be an eternal experience.”