If state regulators approve a casino proposed for Schenectady next month, the facility will be built less than a mile from the Electric City’s two colleges, Union College and Schenectady County Community College.
The casino would be especially close to Union — just three-tenths of a mile from one of the college’s residence halls, in fact. Union College President Stephen Ainlay said he has some concerns about a casino being built around the corner from the 120-acre campus off Nott Street.
“Are there anxieties? Yes, there are,” he said last week after Union’s annual business campaign breakfast. “There are things we are worried about, so we’re watchful, I guess you would say.”
The Galesi Group and Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming are pursuing a casino license from the state. Their $330 million Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor would occupy the former Alco site off Erie Boulevard.
Ainlay declined to comment on his specific concerns or a potential rise in problem gambling among Union’s undergraduates, but students at the college say they would visit a casino that’s only about a 10-minute walk from campus. Casino patrons must be 21 or older to gamble under terms of the Upstate NY Gaming and Economic Development Act. In June, Union had 500 graduating seniors, most of whom were 21 or older.
“I’ll be honest, I would probably go to the casino,” said junior Hans Kjolhede. “I know a handful of guys that would come along too.”
Kjolhede, 20, said he has never been to a casino, but would be willing to try some of the 1,150 slot machines and 66 table games that would be housed at the proposed Rivers Casino.
“I’ve never played before, but it’s something to do for entertainment,” he said. “I didn’t even know a casino might be coming here. I will only be here for two more years, but if it is built before then I would try it.”
He added that several of his friends have driven to Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, Oneida County — nearly two-hour drive from campus — on weekends, “so they would probably go if a casino is right around the corner.”
Jerry Kriss, director of the Center for Problem Gambling in Albany, said although most people who frequent casinos are older, college students are at a greater risk for developing a gambling problem.
“We have some young people currently in treatment,” he said. “Certainly the new casino will ultimately cause problems because it will expose people to gambling. Young people don’t know much yet and will get sucked into the thrill of it.”
Kriss said if a casino is built in the Capital Region, he expects more patients at the center. With facilities like Saratoga Casino and Raceway and Turning Stone already operating, having a casino nearby would attract more local residents, he said.
“We expect more patients in Albany once the casino opens,” Kriss said, “not initially, but certainly in the future once it’s operating a couple of years. The convenience of a casino will attract younger people also with shows and restaurants.”
Officials at Rush Street said the company does not promote gambling among college students and has a strict policy for underage gambling.
“Rush Street Gaming has a zero-tolerance policy for underage gaming. As such, we do not market to colleges or to students,” said Jack Horner, spokesman for Rush Street. “However, we’re strong advocates for education, which we support through scholarships and tuition reimbursement for our team members.”
Ainlay has not addressed his position on a casino publicly since Galesi Group and Rush Street unveiled their plans in May, but the college previously issued a statement saying it supports any development that would boost the local economy.
“We are supportive of Schenectady’s ongoing revitalization efforts and understand the interest in bringing revenues and jobs to the city,” the college said in the statement. “We stand ready to work with city leaders to ensure that any and all revitalization efforts dovetail with our responsibility to our students.”
The city has been keeping officials at the college involved in discussions about the Mohawk Harbor site, Ainlay said. Development will also include apartments, condominiums, townhouses, hotels and office and retail space.
The Gaming Facility Location Board is reviewing 16 casino applications submitted by developers in the Capital Region, Hudson Valley and Southern Tier. Each region is expected to receive one license, with one region receiving a second.
Casinos are also being proposed in Cobleskill, East Greenbush and Rensselaer, but according to Galesi and Rush, Schenectady has the most need for the added jobs and revenue due to its struggling public schools and high poverty rate.
“We understand completely why Schenectady is interested in a casino,” Ainlay said. “We understand why some of the community, certainly the City Council, has rallied behind it. I actually believe that as long as we work together on this that it could benefit us.”
A casino in Schenectady would also benefit Schenectady County Community College, which has one of the only casino and gaming management programs in the Northeast. The two-year associate degree program teaches students how to run live-table games such as blackjack, craps and roulette, along with courses in accounting, hospitality, marketing and security and surveillance.
The proposed Rivers Casino is projected to create 1,200 permanent jobs, which would provide SCCC students with potential careers after graduation, allowing them to stay in the area.
“Our program would definitely be a feeder for them,” said Martha Asselin, SCCC’s acting president. “Our hospitality program will benefit as well, not just the gaming program. We want to train students for these jobs and keep them here in our local community.”
Asselin said she anticipates a majority of SCCC students who are 21 or older would visit the casino. She said the college would explore problem-gambling counseling to address concerns that might arise as a result.
“I do anticipate students going there a lot,” she said. “Will there be problems? Probably. But we will plan for that and try to educate folks.”
The proposed project would include more than just gambling. Rivers Casino would also have restaurants and other entertainment options, providing students with another place to go off-campus.
“Turning Stone has the best buffet ever for like $12 a person,” Asselin said. “The Rivers Casino would also have a buffet, which I’m sure students will go to.”
The casino is also expected to boost SCCC’s enrollment, Asselin said. Rush Street provides employees with the option to take college courses and reimburse them for the cost. That would bring more people to SCCC and expand the college’s programs.
“The nice thing is that as a community college we can adapt and be more flexible to any new degree programs,” she said. “When I learned that Rush lets their employees take classes for free, I knew that would help our enrollment and build our programs.”
Like Kjolhede, Hannah Stein, a junior at Union, said she also didn’t know a casino was being proposed in the city. She said once she turns 21, she might explore what it has to offer.
“I have never been in a casino before,” she said. “Maybe I would try it. I didn’t know a casino could possibly be coming here, and so close. Maybe some people would want to go, sure.”