About one year ago on a snowy December day, after visiting several other sites throughout the Capital Region, Rush Street Gaming officials stopped in Schenectady to look at the old American Locomotive Company site on the Mohawk River.
Most of the old factories and industrial buildings had been demolished a few years earlier. Big mounds of dirt that had been brought in as fill for the brownfield site loomed large. Snow was falling, and one official would say to the other: “I think this is the best site.” They’d shake hands two weeks later with the property owner, the Galesi Group — an early agreement to pursue a casino at the 60-acre site.
On Wednesday, the day state regulators selected Schenectady as the best place for the Capital Region’s only casino, those mounds of dirt had since been leveled out. The snow had turned to slush. Some more buildings had been demolished. Excavators were digging into the site, doing infrastructure work to prepare it for a $480 million redevelopment that would include the Rivers Casino and Resort at Mohawk Harbor, two hotels, condominiums, townhouses, office and retail space, a harbor and pedestrian paths along the river.
“We’re sitting here today for one reason alone,” said Galesi Group COO David Buicko, just a few hours after the state recommended his site for a casino. “We got SEQR done. We are now shovel-ready. If you drive by and look at the site today, we’ve got shovels and cranes and trucks and all sorts of things already in the ground. This is happening.”
Galesi and partner Rush Street Gaming believe their casino proposal was selected above the three others in the region in part because their site would have been ready for a casino well before the others. The state Gaming Facility Location Board made its recommendations Wednesday, but a license can’t be awarded until state police conduct a background investigation of the developers and the site has completed a state-mandated environmental review known as the State Environmental Quality Review, or SEQR.
Schenectady’s site was the only one to have completed the SEQR. (The proposed casino site in Schoharie County underwent a review in 2011, but some questioned whether it should have been updated to look at impacts of a casino.) Once the license is awarded, the developers must build the casino within two years.
Buicko said Wednesday that would be no problem. Because Galesi has been planning a massive redevelopment of the site for years (casino or not), it was able to prepare for a casino without knowing whether it would actually get one, he said.
“We have been prepping,” he said. “We can prep for anything slated for a large use, because it’s gotta have roads, water, sewer, electric. Those are all needed, with or without the casino.”
Once infrastructure is complete, Buicko said, they’ll try to do as much of the various developments at once.
“Once you do roads, water, sewer, you do apartments, the Marriott hotel, townhouses,” he said. “The nice part about it is those can be isolated because the casino is on the southern end of the site and the other developments are on the northern end. So they’re independent of each other, but the more I can do at the same time the better.”
Still, questions remain about some aspects of the site.
One unanswered question is the fate of the 50-slip harbor proposed for the site. Construction of the harbor requires widening the Mohawk River 30 to 40 feet and raising the ground level of the property to help make it less prone to flooding. Such work requires review and approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, which has yet to say when a decision will be made. On Wednesday, Buicko said he still doesn’t know when it will come.
It’s also unclear what will become of a small nuclear reactor that’s been at the site since the 1950s. Schenectady officials have pushed for it to be decommissioned and moved out of a site they hope people will want to live on. But its owner, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has every legal right to keep it there until 2031, when its operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission expires. RPI’s last statement on the issue said development at the site would happen “in concert with” the reactor’s continued presence. But local officials have had reason to believe that won’t be the case.
On Wednesday, Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen would say only that local officials continue to have “good, productive discussions” with RPI as to the reactor’s future.
“That’s all we want to say at this point,” he said. “Stay tuned.”
When asked for comment about the reactor’s fate Wednesday, an RPI spokesman referred comment to Buicko, citing the university’s lack of participation in the casino process.