Schenectady’s Rivers Casino and Resort opens on Mohawk Harbor Wednesday, and the property has drawn a range of predictions on how it will help or hurt the community.
Supporters reason that the casino is creating more than 1,000 good paying jobs, bringing in additional revenue and expanding the city’s tax base. Those who oppose the casino are bracing for increases in traffic, gambling addiction and crime.
One way to see what the future might hold for Rush Street Gaming’s Schenectady property is to look at how its three other casinos have fared. With at least five years of evidence of the effects casinos can have on a city, its residents and its government, representatives from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Des Plaines, Illinois, provided insight into what Schenectady can expect in the coming weeks, months and years.
“There were a lot of rosy projections made, and frankly a lot of dire predictions made by opponents. Neither came to pass,” said Mark Fatla, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Northside Leadership Conference. “[Schenectady’s casino] will wind up I’m guessing, much as it did with us, somewhere between the two extremes.”
The largest and oldest of Rush Street’s four properties, Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, opened in 2009, giving residents like Fatla eight years of evidence regarding its economic impact on the community.
At the time the casino opened, Pittsburgh was in dire straits financially and headed toward bankruptcy, Fatla said. As a result, casino money provided a needed additional revenue stream for a city looking to balance its budget.
“It certainly didn’t reduce taxes, but If it allowed the city to hold the line on taxes that was a good thing,” he said. “I don’t think they ever hit the projections first made, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been good.”
The Pittsburgh casino sits on the north shore of the Ohio River, near Heinz Field, PNC Park and the Carnegie Science Center. Fatla doesn’t credit Rivers Casino with the resulting development along the shore given the other attractions, but added that it didn’t hurt the cause.
In addition to revenue, the casino has provided jobs for roughly 1,000 people, Fatla said, though he added that there’s often high turnover in casinos where workers have to contend with a 24-hour schedule.
Given the size of Pittsburgh’s casino and the city itself, the most comparable property to Schenectady is located in Des Plaines, a city of about 60,000 people located 20 miles northwest of Chicago.
Schenectady’s casino will have 1,150 slot games, 67 table games, and cost about $330 million.
The casino in Des Plaines opened in 2011, and features 1,044 slot games, 48 table games and cost roughly $408 million to build.
The Rivers Casino in Des Plaines has consistently been the top grossing casino in Illinois the last few years, drawing visitors from Chicago and nearby O’Hare International Airport.
“It brings people to your town that ultimately will spend money in your town,” City Manager Mike Bartholomew said. “We really don’t have any complaints.”
Illinois legislation limits the state to 10 gaming licenses, and Rivers in Des Plaines received the final one. With nine casinos to draw data from when making projections, Des Plaines’ revenue estimates ended up “right on target,” Bartholomew said.
Recently, Des Plaines was able to put nearly $9 million in annual gaming revenue directly toward infrastructure projects, making improvements to city roads, sewers and more, Bartholomew said.
“It’s not necessarily used for tax relief, but it does get there ultimately,” he said. “That’s money we don’t have to tax our residents for.”
Given their proximity to the nation’s second busiest airport, Des Plaines hotels already have a steady source of patrons, but Bartholomew said they got another boost when the casino opened.
In addition, the casino has been helpful in supporting the multiple entertainment venues in the neighboring village of Rosemont, Bartholomew said.
While speaking last October at the Center for Economic Growth’s annual conference, Rush Street Gaming CEO Greg Carlin suggested that, despite population and size disparities, Philadelphia’s Sugarhouse casino is another good comparison for Schenectady.
The property was opened in 2010 on the waterfront of an old industrial site, and has since provided a boost to the surrounding business community, he said.
“Our experience in all the other markets we’ve been in is they’ve have had a super positive impact on the communities,” Carlin said in October. “We can’t take all the credit for it but I think we were a catalyst to get things going.”
Officials from the city of Philadelphia deferred comment to the state gaming board. Other area economic organizations either declined or deferred comment on the Sugarhouse.
State gaming records show that gross revenue at all three existing Rush Street properties remain steady, even years after they opened.
In December 2013, the Sugarhouse brought in $13.5 million in gross slot revenue. In December 2016, it brought in $14.1 million, according to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
The Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh took in $23 million in gross slot revenue in December 2013. That number dropped slightly to $21.8 million in December 2016, according to the gaming board.
Rivers Casino Des Plaines collected $35.2 million in gross slot revenues in December 2016, by far the most of any Illinois commercial casino, according to the Illinois Gaming Board.
While the economic experiences of host cities have varied with other Rush Street properties, city leaders agree on how much crime the casinos brought with them.
“We haven’t seen that at all. I know that’s always a fear that comes along with casinos, but they do a good job of policing themselves,” Bartholomew said.
“Before the casino was built, the property was a giant parking lot. Crime for the casino in the first year, it was lower than the parking lot,” Fatla said of the Pittsburgh facility. “Crime has not really been any kind of factor down there.”
Neither Pittsburgh nor Des Plaines has seen crime spread into surrounding neighborhoods, officials said.
Fatla noted that there’s often an uptick in problem gambling after a casino opens, which can sometimes lead to increases in embezzlement or petty theft as players resort to crime to pay off their debts. However, the problem isn’t rampant, he said.
Schenectady police will have additional personnel on hand for the casino’s opening days, but Rivers Casino and Resort General Manager Mary Cheeks has said she doesn’t anticipate crime being an issue.
Rivers touts itself as being actively involved with its host cities. That’s already been true in Schenectady, but it’s reflected elsewhere as well.
In Des Plaines, Bartholomew said Rivers is an active partner with the city’s Chamber of Commerce and local schools, and sponsors city events, such as the “Taste of Des Plaines.” Most recently, he said, the casino is working with the city to help restore a historic downtown theatre.
In Pittsburgh, the casino worked with a non-profit that works on community development and wellness, Fatla said. The business committed $1 million per year for three years after it opened, he said.
In Schenectady, the casino has already announced a partnership with Schenectady ARC that saved four to six jobs for people with disabilities. The facility’s bottle redemption center will pick up used containers from Rivers twice a week, sort them and ready them for pickup.
Rivers Casino and Resort also served as one of the sponsors for Schenectady County’s annual SummerNight event last July, and for Glenville’s Oktoberfest a couple months later.
Scott Clay, director of community relations for the casino, said Rivers will continue to seek out other opportunities in the community.
“We are Rivers Casino Schenectady,” he said in January. “That’s our identity; that’s not just branding.”
Here’s how Schenectady’s Rivers Casino and Resort stacks up with Rush Street Gaming’s three other properties:
Schenectady (Rivers Casino and Resort)
Table games: 67
Additional amenities: Lounge, five restaurants, banquet hall, hotel opening summer 2017
Des Plaines (Rivers Casino)
Table games: 48
Additional amenities: Seven restaurants, nightclub style lounge
Pittsburgh (Rivers Casino)
Table games: 86
Additional amenities: Seven restaurants, cocktail lounge, music lounge, hotel opening 2018
Philadelphia (Sugarhouse Casino)
Table games: 136
Additional amenities: Eight restaurants, lounge, event center