For more than two years, municipal and business leaders worked to bring a casino to Schenectady, and in early February those efforts culminated with the opening of Rivers Casino & Resort.
Since the casino’s Feb. 8 grand opening, visitors have placed bets, staffers have served drinks and meals, and thousands of cars have exited the Erie Boulevard traffic circle at Rush Street to see the new property for themselves.
The $330 million facility opened to the public on Feb. 8 and features gambling, dining and live music. It will soon add a spa and hotel to its list of attractions. It’s located on the Mohawk Harbor development, tucked between the Mohawk River and the STS Steel buildings.
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The property has been touted as an economic engine for the city and region, bringing jobs and revenue for the area. It’s also been the subject of some concern from neighbors who worry that spikes in traffic, crime and problem gambling might lead to poorer quality of life.
In its first two weeks, the casino maintained a steady business, netting $3 million and $3.5 million, respectively, in gaming revenue after payouts.
With a few weeks already in the books, here’s a look at what to expect and what people are saying about Schenectady’s newest offering.
Rivers Casino & Resort is the fourth property for Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming, and in many ways officials believe it’s the best.
“From a design perspective this is definitely the best of our properties,” said Greg Carlin, CEO of Rush Street Gaming. “We’ve taken what works and what doesn’t work from other projects.”
That means using prior experience to find the right balance of garage parking versus surface-lot parking, making sure the gaming floor is easily accessible and focusing on customer experience, Carlin said.
At the heart of the casino, which is open 24 hours a day, is a 50,000-square-foot gaming floor that features 1,150 slot machines, 67 table games, 15 poker tables and a high-limit area. The table games line the middle of the floor, which officials said is intentional so that the excitement surrounding the tables radiates outward.
To the back of the gaming floor is a marketplace with four restaurants — Johnny’s To Go, Villa Italia, Mian and Flipt — that offer casual dining options. To either side of the gaming area are more dining and entertainment options.
Next to the poker room is Van Slyck’s, a lounge that offers drinks, more gaming options and live music. Next to the high-limit area is Dukes Chophouse, an upscale restaurant with a riverside patio.
With the exception of the centralized gaming floor, which features no windows or clocks, and Van Slyck’s, which mimics a small nightclub, windows along the edges of the casino let in natural light and provide views of the outside world.
“Our customers appreciate it because they don’t feel like they’re in a box,” said Joe Scibetta, vice president of operations and development for Rush Street Gaming. “They actually feel like they’re in a regular restaurant or gaming area. They’re just not used to seeing natural light.”
In early March, the Splash Spa opened. The business is accessible from the casino lobby, so visitors under 21 can still visit the spa without cutting through the gaming floor.
In July, a 165-room hotel attached to the casino will open for business. Rush Street Gaming Chairman Neil Bluhm said he expects it will be the nicest hotel in the area, offering views of the Mohawk River and a large banquet space.
Expectations for the casino were largely optimistic with a dose of skepticism. Initial reaction has mirrored that, with many visitors thrilled to have the casino nearby and others unimpressed.
The casino opened to a strong crowd on Feb. 8, with thousands of residents from around the Capital Region eager to check out the $330 million facility. Some were just there for the spectacle, but many said they were frequent visitors of Turning Stone or the Saratoga racino who liked the convenience of a closer gambling hall.
“I go to [Saratoga Casino and Raceway] but this is a lot closer for me,” said Joanne Tricozzi, a Colonie resident. “It’ll be exciting. The whole harbor development is exciting, and I think the convenience will be big for a lot of people.”
Hundreds of people lined up the morning of Feb. 8, hours before the casino’s doors officially opened to the public. One man held a sign that read “Rivers Casino!! Welcome Home!!”
As she stood in line on opening day, Rotterdam resident JoAnne Lyons said she’s glad those who typically leave the area for Turning Stone, located in the town of Verona, or the Saratoga racino, will now be spending their money locally.
Most leaving the casino in its first few days in business were pleased with the facility, saying they enjoyed the gaming options and the ambiance.
But not everyone came away convinced the casino was a hit. Many complaints centered on the crowds in the first week, with visitors lamenting long waits for drinks, inadequate staffing and difficulty getting a seat at table games.
In responses to negative Facebook comments, the casino posted that it is reviewing feedback and will work to iron out the kinks in the coming weeks.
Carlin, CEO of Rush Street Gaming, said that’s often the case at the company’s properties.
“We make adjustments based on people’s preferences,” he said on opening day. “We’re constantly evaluating the floor and what people want more of or less of.”
Most of the conversation surrounding the casino — before, during and after it was built — involved its expected economic benefits to the city and region.
Money spent on slots and table games is taxed by the state, and a portion of that revenue comes back to the city of Schenectady and Schenectady County. Another share is divided among surrounding counties. In preparing its 2017 budget, the county conservatively estimated it would see about $3.3 million in revenue in the casino’s first year.
In addition to municipalities benefiting, so too will local school districts. Of the taxed gaming revenue, 80 percent of it will be redistributed to schools statewide based on the state’s education formula.
Residents across the city have said they hope to see future revenue used to cut taxes and improve neighborhood infrastructure. And most agree that the casino’s role as a job producer is positive for a city and region with many unemployed or underemployed citizens.“
"Anything that produces 1,000 jobs and creates a riverscape is good,” said Bob Harvey, president of Schenectady’s Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville), who represents the 49th Senate District, said at the casino’s opening ceremony that the casino is an important part of the region’s economic engine, and he’s hopeful it’s able to sustain itself years from now.
The casino has hired about 1,000 people so far, with more expected over the next few months as the facility adds a hotel and opens a spa.
“These are life-changing jobs for many of them,” Rivers’ General Manager Mary Cheeks said. “And if you’re focused, you can move up.”
In order to bring in revenue, the casino has to bring in droves of people. For some, that means concerns over crime and traffic.
On opening day, Erie Boulevard and the roundabout near the casino entrance occasionally backed up as first-time visitors stopped to ask nearby police questions about parking. Since then, parking and traffic have mostly been a non-issue around the property, though there’s concern about spillover into nearby neighborhoods.
Some Stockade residents have expressed anxiety that casino visitors will park in the neighborhood, which already has narrow streets that accommodate residents’ vehicles.
“I think some it kind of really remains to be seen,” Cheeks said. “I think folks in the neighborhood have always been concerned about extra traffic coming through as a result of the casino or construction on Erie Boulevard.”
Just across the river in Glenville, town Supervisor Chris Koetzle said the town is “in wait-and-see mode,” but that personnel have tried to prepare for a sizable increase in vehicles traveling through the town en route to the casino.
He pointed to Freemans Bridge Road and Maple Avenue as areas that already experience heavy traffic during peak hours and are expected to get more congested with visitors using them to get to the casino.
“I’m happy for Schenectady, and hopefully it’s very successful for the area,” Koetzle said. “But there hasn’t been enough focus on our community and how it’s impacted.”
A few residents and casino skeptics have mentioned increased crime as an area of concern, but officials point to Rush Street Gaming’s other properties, where crime either decreased or remained steady in the surrounding areas once the facilities opened.
City leaders in Pittsburgh and Des Plaines, Ill., home of two other Rush Street casinos, backed that up, saying crime has not been a factor.
“You’re creating jobs, and by lighting it at night and putting cameras out there, you’re making it a safer place,” said Carlin, Rush Street’s CEO.
Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady is equipped with about 700 cameras.
The company also prides itself on establishing connections in the community, something it’s already worked to do in Schenectady.
In January, the casino announced a partnership with Schenectady ARC that saved four to six jobs for people with disabilities in its bottle redemption program. It also sponsored Schenectady County’s Summer-Night last July, and Glenville’s Oktoberfest later in 2016.
“We’ve been welcomed by the community,” Carlin said. “More so than at other projects, and it’s been really gratifying, actually.”
A previous version of this story gave the wrong timeframe for Splash Spa's opening. The spa opened in early March.