SCHENECTADY — While Rivers Casino & Resort lags behind projections in terms of gaming revenue, officials were quick Tuesday to hail it as a success for the city and region about seven months after it opened.
“You need a good three-year period before you judge expectations,” state Sen. John Bonacic said. “And I say, no matter what the expectations are, if they come in a little short, it’s a huge success.”
Bonacic, who chairs the Senate Committee on Racing, Gaming and Wagering, was among the speakers at a panel Tuesday on Rivers Casino & Resort’s impact on the area economy. The event was organized by the American Gaming Association, a trade group representing the casino industry.
The city and county of Schenectady have, through August, gotten $1.3 million in taxed gaming revenues from Rivers Casino & Resort. Each receives a 5 percent cut as host communities of the taxable money, while the rest is split among public schools and adjacent counties.
The county and city had budgeted $2.75 million in gaming revenue for 2017. Each government came to that number by using the casino’s own low-end projections for 2017 revenues, then pro-rating it to a March opening.
Based on current trends, it appears unlikely the city or county will achieve that number, despite the casino opening in early February.
But gaming revenue, arguably the most prominent benefit of the casino as officials have pledged to use it to lower or stabilize property taxes, was barely mentioned during Tuesday’s event. Instead, officials focused on jobs, attracting visitors to the region and partnerships between Rivers and other area businesses.
“It is a game-changer for this community and really the region,” Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said. “What community would not want 1,000 new jobs? What community would not want an investment of $330 million?”
In his remarks, McCarthy focused on job creation and the revitalization of a Brownfield site that previously lay abandoned and chemical-filled for close to 50 years.
As of last month, more than 1,100 people are working at Rivers Casino and The Landing Hotel, located adjacent to the gaming facility. Officials earlier this year said they expected to hire about 1,150 workers in total to fill positions at the property. The casino has also experienced a turnover rate of about 32 percent in its first six months of operation, slightly below the industry average.
Mary Cheeks, the casino’s general manager who previously worked at the Sugarhouse Casino in Philadelphia, said the newness of commercial gaming in Schenectady has created a need for more training with prospective employees.
“In the Philadelphia market, gaming had existed quite a while,” Cheeks said. “Also, it’s an hour from Atlantic City, so you have a lot of density in gaming and hospitality. Here, you didn’t have a lot of team members with that gaming experience.”
The casino has been responsible for a number of “hidden jobs” as well, said Ray Gillen, chairman of the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority. He cited the construction jobs it took to build the facility, employees hired at Proctors to assist with entertainment bookings at the casino, and service workers who may not come to mind when thinking of dealers and table game workers.
The casino’s presence has also created new opportunities for local businesses, with varying results.
Albany-based Digital XPress printing’s division focused on infographics and posters has grown thanks to its partnership with Rivers, said Tracy Terry, an executive with the company and a member of Tuesday’s panel.
She noted one project where the casino asked for branded plastic vinyl that could be wrapped around a garbage can. By experimenting with new products for the casino, Terry said, Digital XPress has been able to sell similar creative concepts to other customers.
Other businesses in closer proximity to the casino have not seen the same consistent boost in customers.
Morrette’s King Steakhouse on Erie Boulevard sees a slight boost on some nights when casino patrons stop by for dinner, said Max Martin, the owner’s son. Otherwise, business has been steady, but not particularly booming as a result of the new attraction up the road.
The road itself may be having an effect on adjacent businesses, though. As Erie Boulevard undergoes a multimillion-dollar resurfacing project, potholes and construction equipment have kept business at bay at Mike’s Hot Dogs, said Brandon Freeman, an employee at the shop.
“We had a pick-up when the casino first came in,” he said. “We haven’t really seen anything in the last few months because of the construction.”
The nature of Erie Boulevard itself may soon change, as the Mohawk Harbor development has prompted the city’s Planning Commission to study the zoning of the corridor near the property. Existing zoning laws limit what types of businesses are permitted on the streets, but property owners have recently sought to capitalize on the new development along the river.
Officials also urged patience with the casino, and preached about long-term benefits that may not manifest themselves right away.
Bonacic, McCarthy, Cheeks and others pointed to the ongoing development at Mohawk Harbor, where tenants recently began moving into apartments, a hotel has been open to guests for about a year and retail and office space is expected to be filled in the coming months.
“When you bring people in [to the property], you’ll see how the casino does,” Bonacic said. “Let the other capital projects finish.”
He again suggested a three-year window would be ample time to more accurately assess the casino’s impact on local tax coffers.
A “nascent” convention and visitors bureau should also help draw more people to the property in years to come, while also showcasing Schenectady County’s other offerings, said Philip Morris, CEO at Proctors.
“Sometimes in government or just in the community as a whole, you have expectations where things are going to happen immediately,” McCarthy said “It doesn’t always work out that way. We’d all like that, but it’s an ongoing systematic process of maximizing the benefit of this facility."