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Rivers Casino opening brings optimism, large crowds

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Rivers Casino opening brings optimism, large crowds

'It’s going to bring people here and be good for business'
Rivers Casino opening brings optimism, large crowds
Visitors walk toward Rivers Casino on opening night, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

It’s officially game on in Schenectady.

Rivers Casino & Resort opened just before noon on Wednesday on the Mohawk Harbor site to much fanfare, as thousands of guests poured into the facility for the first time.

“Today is just all good news,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a pre-opening ceremony. “It really is a dream come true.”

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Hundreds of people lined up hours in advance to be among the first to experience the $330 million facility. Once customers stepped foot on the red carpet rolled onto the 50,000-square-foot gaming floor, they were greeted by a showgirl wearing a giant, red, feathery headdress who wished them good luck.

By about 1:30 p.m., each of the 67 table games and 15 poker tables—and nearly all of the 1,150 slot machines—were occupied. A line snaked through one end of the gaming floor as customers signed up for rewards cards, while dozens waited to order food at the casino’s marketplace.

The opening came with its share of hiccups, as traffic backed up periodically along Erie Boulevard and in the roundabout near the facility’s entrance. For the most part, though, it was a day of celebration, as leaders touted the casino as a sign of what’s to come in Schenectady.

Looking ahead

From the time it was proposed, Rivers was pitched as an economic boon to the region. On its opening day, leaders hammered that message home once again.

“It’s not just that we have this beautiful Rivers Casino,” Cuomo said to a crowd of state and local leaders. “You now start to see other developments that are also coming to reality, coming to fruition. And what was that negative energy and negative synergy is now a positive energy and positive synergy.”

The city of Schenectady and Schenectady County will benefit directly from money spent gambling at Rivers. Forty-five cents of every dollar spent on slots—and 10 cents of every dollar spent on table games—goes back to New York state.

Of that money, 80 percent is redistributed to public schools statewide based on the state education formula, and 10 percent goes to surrounding counties based on population. The city and county then get 5 percent each.

In addition to construction jobs, the casino has hired 1,022 people so far, and officials said 80 percent of those employees are local. In addition, 50 casino executives relocated to the Capital Region from other Rush Street Gaming properties and around the country, Rivers general manager Mary Cheeks said.

“These are life-changing jobs for many of those people,” Cheeks said.

Cuomo said the casino industry is just the latest effort to boost a long-stagnant upstate economy. For years, upstate New York was void of casino gaming, Cuomo said.

A racino in Saratoga Springs offers some gambling options, and Turning Stone Resort and Casino, in the town of Verona, is one of multiple upstate Indian reservation facilities.

In 2013, voters passed a referendum allowing four commercial casinos to be built upstate. Schenectady was recommended for a gaming license in December 2014, and received its license about a year later.

Fast forward to Wednesday, and officials called it the culmination of one project, but the continuation of a larger effort to revitalize the city. The project is part of the larger Mohawk Harbor development, which includes planned apartments, retail and office space on a former industrial lot.

“It’s a significant milestone to get it open and share the excitement with Schenectady and the region,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “It’s the progression of the city’s renaissance. Now we’re going to continue to go forward in building a stronger community.”

Opening day

The buzz surrounding the grand opening spread throughout the Capital Region on Wednesday, as customers traveled from Scotia, Troy, Albany, Saratoga and Glens Falls to see what Rivers had to offer

“The excitement it brings to the city is something I’ve never seen before,” said Bobby Mallozzi, who, as a member of the Mallozzi Group, oversees all casino dining operations.

With that excitement came thousands of cars. Between a garage and surface lots, the casino has 1,800 on-site parking spots, but a building capacity of roughly 7,000 people.

An exact number of patrons was not available, but officials said attendance “exceeded expectations” on opening day. Visitors skewed older, with a few needing walkers or canes to get around.

As a result, the garage was full by about 1:30 p.m., and visitors were forced to seek alternative options. Some parked near Union College or downtown and made the roughly half-mile walk to the casino.

“It’s not too bad since it’s not that cold out,” one woman said as she approached the casino.

With drivers unsure what to do as they approached the facility along Erie Boulevard, many slowed or came to a complete stop in the roundabout. Dozens of police officers and security personnel were directing traffic, advising motorists to find legal street parking.

Despite occasional backups and heavier traffic than usual, Schenectady Police reported no major issues on opening day.

Greg Carlin, CEO of Rush Street Gaming, said Wednesday was actually less chaotic than the business’ last casino opening event in 2011, when the streets of Des Plaines, Illinois, clogged with traffic.

“That’s a good thing, because you don’t want people to come and have a bad experience,” Carlin said. “So you want to open during the week in the early afternoon, because if you open on a Friday or a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll just be overwhelmed or swamped with people. This way you can sort of ease into it.”

Public reaction

For their part, residents were ready to roll even before the sun rose Wednesday.

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Mike Testa, a Rotterdam Junction resident, waved a sign above his head reading “Rivers Casino!! Welcome Home!!”

“I think it’ll be good for the area,” he said. “It’s going to bring people here and be good for business. It’s a cool setting right by the river. I mostly just need to watch my wallet.”

Customers began forming a line about 5 a.m. to enter the facility. By 9 a.m., about 100 people had gathered in the casino lobby, and about an hour later the line had stretched into the parking garage. Most had gambling experience, but a handful of attendees said they were there for the spectacle of opening day.

The majority of Schenectady residents are hopeful the casino will bring jobs and tax cuts to the city. A few still hold reservations about possible crime and problem gambling.

On Wednesday, though, optimism ruled the day. JoAnne Lyons, a Rotterdam resident, said she thinks the casino is a fantastic asset for the city. Like many others, she said she frequented the racino in Saratoga and Turning Stone but is excited to have a new, more convenient option.

Among those interviewed, residents came from as far as Glens Falls, and as close as Scotia and Niskayuna. Most said they see it as a positive having a casino in the area, citing the economic benefits and the entertainment aspect.

The casino features five restaurants, a banquet hall and a lounge area.

When asked what they were most looking forward to about the casino, a handful of visitors said “winning.”

Aside from dealing with traffic and parking, executives found only one complaint when they surveyed gamers shortly after they flooded the gaming floor.

“We learned from one woman we don’t have enough ‘let it ride’ tables,” Carlin said. “We make adjustments based on people’s preferences. We’re constantly evaluating the floor and what people want more of.”

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