With Rivers Casino and Resort days away from opening its doors in Schenectady, some residents and local leaders are hesitant to go all in.
Proponents of the $330 million casino have long spelled out its anticipated benefits. It is predicted the facility will draw thousands of people in its opening days, serve as a regional destination and provide steady additional revenue for a city still looking to eliminate pockets of poverty and improve infrastructure.
But to some, bringing a casino to Schenectady represents a gamble that could result in quality-of-life problems for nearby residents and communities. While the majority of city residents who spoke out during the application process expressed support for the project, some are still greeting Rivers’ opening days and weeks with a healthy dose of caution.
“I hope it’s going to be extremely successful and help the city,” Schenectady Councilman Vince Riggi said. “So far there’s been a lot of promises, so let’s see if those promises become reality.”
Projections and studies have provided locals with an idea of what to expect from the casino in terms of finances, traffic and more, but many are waiting to see what reality brings before buying in fully.
In Glenville, studies have shown the town will likely experience a sizable increase in traffic as gamblers make their way down Freemans Bridge Road to the casino.
“We already have congestion in our commercial corridors at peak times, so it’s concerning to me how it’ll affect residents,” said Town Supervisor Chris Koetzle.
He worries that will lead to an increased burden on the town’s police department, which will have to deal with any speeding, traffic accident or drunken-driving calls that come with the additional vehicles.
The town, which sits directly across the river from the casino property, has tried to think proactively about how it can combat such problems, Koetzle said, but he’s hopeful the state and Schenectady County will chip in resources if problems crop up.
“We’re in wait-and-see mode right now,” Koetzle said, adding that he’s hoping the casino is successful for the region.
Like Glenville, Stockade residents share a border with the casino. From the beginning of the bid to put a casino within walking distance of the neighborhood, residents have mostly expressed concerns about additional traffic, said Carol DeLaMarter, president of the Stockade Association.
She commended city and casino officials for doing their best to proactively address those anxieties, saying the goal has always been to direct traffic out onto Erie Boulevard instead of down Front Street into the Stockade.
“I think folks are going to be open, but attentive to potential impacts,” DeLaMarter said. “People are a little nervous about parking in the neighborhood. I think some of it really remains to be seen.”
The casino has a capacity of 7,029 people and is expected to draw thousands in each of its first few days. It is equipped with 1,800 parking spots on site between a garage and surface lots, said Rivers Casino and Resort General Manager Mary Cheeks. On opening day, employees will park off-site to provide additional spaces for customers.
“Between Schenectady police and our security, we’re more than ready for the traffic situation,” Cheeks said.
Sgt. Matt Dearing said additional officers will be deployed to the casino in the opening days to manage the expected crowds. The department released a PSA last week instructing visitors where they should enter the facility.
“We are expecting a heavy traffic volume, but we unfortunately can’t predict how many cars or at what times or anything like that,” Dearing said.
The casino’s anticipated finances have also been tough to predict without hard evidence. In the summer of 2016, with casino construction well underway, Mayor Gary McCarthy suggested Schenectady residents might experience as much as a 10 percent tax cut in 2017 thanks to expected casino revenue.
That tax cut ultimately came in at 4 percent – still a break, and the second consecutive year with a reduction, but below initial projections and less than the 5 percent cut city councilors aimed for.
Aside from city finances, there’s the matter of personal finances. The most recent federal study on gambling shows problem gambling roughly doubles within a 50-mile radius of a new casino. Experts consider proximity and opportunity the biggest contributors to a gambling habit.
Prior to Rivers, the nearest full casino to Schenectady was Turning Stone Resort and Casino, located almost 100 miles west in the town of Verona, although there is also the racino in Saratoga Springs, which has numerous gambling options, though not as many as either Turning Stone or Rivers.
“If someone had to go to Turning Stone but could only go once a week because it was too far, now you can go every day. You can go after work, you can go between errands,” said Jim Maney, executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling.
The biggest warning signs of a possible addiction include making more frequent trips to a casino and betting higher amounts, or lying about the frequency of those visits, Maney said.
Consequences of problem gambling can surface in different ways, he said. For some, it might be reflected in unpaid bills or a dependency on social services. For others, it might lead to stress and additional doctor’s visits.
While problem gambling affects a small percentage of the population, Maney said it’s an issue that can affect an entire family if bills go unpaid and money dries up. The best way to seek treatment is to call the state’s help line, he said.
For its part, Rivers Casino and Resort has a set of policies in place to promote responsible gaming. Those include employee education and training, listing the state’s addiction help hotline on its advertisements and social media posts and self-exclusion policies.
If a customer is believed to display characteristics of a problem gambler, they’re asked to fill out a form that would keep them off of the property for a designated amount of time.
“We will ask people to add themselves to the exclusion list if we see them betting over their head, not with their head,” said Cheeks.
The state’s new casinos are also expected to contribute a few million dollars annually toward problem gambling efforts.
Potential addiction is just one of the litany of concerns raised by members of a Facebook page titled “No Casinos in the Capital District,” which started in opposition to a casino being situated in the region at all, said Stephen Hayford, the page’s administrator. The page has about 600 members.
Many of Hayford’s worries align with those mentioned by others — an increase in problem gambling, negative impacts on quality of life and potential crime.
He also suggested the casino, which comes equipped with dining options, a lounge and a banquet hall, will threaten local restaurants. Hayford, a Watervliet resident, said he and other group members would prefer to see the state focus on other methods of boosting the upstate economy, though he didn’t offer specifics.
With the casino a reality and opening day on the horizon, Hayford said the only positive he can see is that it wasn’t placed elsewhere in the region, like East Greenbush. In the meantime, he remains unconvinced the casino is a worthwhile bet for Schenectady.
“The test won’t be how it does in the first few months, the test will be how it does five and 10 years from now,” Hayford said. “I hope the city isn’t crippled in various ways by this casino, but I’m concerned that it’s going to turn out to be a big mistake for the city.”