We are only in the first year of the Rivers Casino operation.
Still, it might be helpful to see where things stand.
Given the fact casino revenues have fallen short of projections, an analysis is all the more important.
Benefits have certainly accrued to many in Schenectady from the casino.
The developer, the casino operator, vendors, employees of the casino and taxpayers have clearly benefited.
For taxpayers, though, the 1 percent reduction in city and county taxes for this year is a far cry from the 10 percent figure bandied about in the past.
Besides, the increase in sewer and water fees offset that 1 percent decrease.
Problems have also emerged. Schenectady County now has the dubious distinction of having the highest crime rate in New York. With the city’s role in that statistic, and with crime associated with any casino an issue, the county’s ranking is particularly troubling, since it came before the casino was operational.
What will this year bring?
On several occasions, people have approached me to talk of robberies in the casino parking lot. One even mentioned a casino winner who was followed home and robbed.
Hearsay, but hardly a pretty picture!
Then there are the social costs.
If one has discretionary income (and will power), one can take a set amount of money, enjoy time at the casino and go home. A friend of mine does so weekly.
For him, it is a nice diversion, but he can afford to lose the amount he sets aside for his weekly visits.
What about those who cannot afford to lose?
With our incredibly high property taxes, will people place bets at the casino they cannot afford to lose to cover those taxes?
And will we have more tax foreclosures and vacant properties? I fear the answer is “yes.”
The worst example I have heard involved a man who withdrew funds from his retirement account.
Since the minimum age for withdrawing those funds penalty-free is 59-1/2 (He was younger.), the man paid a 10 percent penalty to withdraw those funds, went to the casino, and lost $40,000.
In the casino’s defense, it is apparently supporting a program to help those with gambling problems. Unfortunately, the program will do no good for the person who lost half his retirement fund.
For the sake of Schenectady County and its taxpayers, I hope the casino succeeds. After all, the better the casino does, the closer we will come to the promises made about the effect of the casino on taxes.
Let’s not forget, though, those who lose their money to add to the casino’s bottom line and, in theory, to lower taxes for property owners.
After all, the casino draws its clientele from a roughly 60-mile radius, so its customers in many cases are “us.”
It is also not too early—it is never too early—to plan for life after the casino.
The hotels, condos, and boat slips are a welcome addition to Schenectady. What might well go with those new assets in a post-casino era?
A good use of the casino property would have been a conference or convention center, which would have fit nicely with those first-rate additions.
Of course, that idea evaporated with the recent opening of the Albany Convention Center.
The city and county should begin the planning process now for life after the casino. Doing so would be good public policy, not an attack on the casino’s prospects or an indication that something negative is about to happen to the casino.
The city and county should also do everything possible to protect their citizens from becoming casino “victims.”
While adults need to be responsible for their actions, it is irresponsible for political entities not to look out for them.
Dr. Roger H. Hull of Schenectady served as president of Union College and chancellor of Union University from 1990-2005. He is currently president of the Help Yourself Foundation, a Schenectady-based nonprofit educational organization.