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Foss: Increase in casino revenue comes with social costs

Foss: Increase in casino revenue comes with social costs

Foss: Increase in casino revenue comes with social costs
The gaming floor of the Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady is shown in this file photograph.
Photographer: Gazette file photo

Rivers Casino & Resort has quietly turned a corner, defying, I must admit, my cynical expectations for Schenectady's gaming facility on the Mohawk. 

The casino is generating a lot more revenue than it did last year, which means more money for Capital Region tax coffers. 

Which is a good thing. 

Right?  

Well, it depends on your perspective. 

In the year and a half since Rivers opened, Stockade resident David Giacalone, a stalwart casino critic, has focused on the facility's failure to meet revenue targets. 

Now that the casino's financial performance is on the upswing, Giacalone has switched gears: He's worried that there's too much gambling going, and that addiction and crippling debt will be the result. When I spoke to him, I asked whether there was anything the casino could do to make him happy. 

The answer: Probably not. 

"It's kind of hard to imagine they're going to say or do anything that I'm going to say, 'That's great,'" Giacalone said. 

Like Giacalone, I've been critical of the casino.

Now that it's here, I want it to be a success. 

But it isn't always clear to me what that means, because a casino isn't a benign presence. 

More gambling benefits local governments, but it hurts people who lose control when they set foot on a casino floor. Many of those people are our friends, neighbors and co-workers, and their suffering takes a toll on the wider community. 

Rivers refused to answer questions about why revenue might be up ("Rivers must decline on answering any performance questions," Lisa Johnson, who handles communications for the casino, informed me in an email). But slots and other electronic games are probably a big factor. 

Between February 2018 and June 2018, Rivers reported roughly $43.9 million in gross gaming revenue from slots and electronic table games -- a 21.8 percent increase from same time period during 2017. 

This is an impressive increase, but here's the thing: Slots are highly addictive. 

If more people are gambling at slots, that could means more paychecks are being squandered and more families are struggling with the fallout.

"I find slots particularly deplorable," Phil Rainer, director of clinical services at The Center for Problem Gambling in Albany, told me. "Some of the table games really do involve some skill." 

Slots and other electronic games "are very carefully designed to maximize the likelihood of a person staying put," said Rainer, adding that the machines are comfortable and that the payouts are timed "to keep a person at the machine thinking a big payout is coming." 

The Center for Problem Gambling is an outpatient treatment center for people with gambling problems. Rainer said that slots are a "huge draw" for many of his clients. 

The Center's caseload has steadily grown since the casino opened, and the organization currently has more people enrolled in its program -- 58, compared to 42 last year at this time or anytime previously. 

The increase in slot machine revenue isn't unique to Rivers. 

Slot machine revenue is up at casinos throughout the country, and the reason why is fairly straightforward: When times are good, people gamble more.  

"Typically, when economic indicators are up we see an increase in gaming revenue," David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told me in an email. "Slot machine gaming is a good barometer for the domestic retail customer [who] would be very impacted by things like high economic growth and low unemployment." 

A strong economy is always something to celebrate. 

But I find it difficult to celebrate the boom times at Rivers' slot machines. 

For most people, playing the slots is harmless entertainment. 

But for others, it's a huge waste of time and money. 

Local governments might reap the benefits of an increase in gaming revenue. But the social costs that go along with it shouldn't be ignored. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's. 

 

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