Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Revisiting the Downtown Casino Question

A surprisingly large percentage of the region's populace is convinced that there is only one sure way to revitalize Downtown Rochester. This project would bring thousands of visitors downtown on a regular basis. It would guarantee hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and would provide an answer for the question of what to do with Midtown. However, an equally large cohort is convinced that this "one sure way" is a nail in the coffin of a vibrant downtown. It would increase crime, lead to serious mental health problems, and would provide little to no economic spin-off effect to the rest of downtown. This incredibly divisive concept is, of course, casino gambling.

Back in 2004, local developer Wilmorite revealed plans for a $500 million casino hotel complex spread over 35 acres of Downtown Rochester (see rendering below). Both the Sibley Building and Midtown Plaza would have been incorporated into the project. Wilmorite, who had been active in courting Indian casino development business elsewhere, was working with the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma on the Rochester project. Local business and political leaders, and the general population, were split on the issue. Democrats, led by then-Mayor Johnson, were adamantly opposed to the concept. Most social service agencies and small business owners joined the Democrats in opposition. Republicans and big business, led by the Greater Rochester Visitors Association and Rochester Business Alliance, were generally in favor of the plan. Ultimately, without support from the City of Rochester, New York State chose not to pursue an Indian casino in Rochester.

Like the rest of you, I too have been torn by this issue. I see both the positives and negatives of having a large casino hotel complex at the heart of our "Central Business District." As I see it, the positives are many: increased activity, improved appearance and perception, thousands of new jobs, more entertainment options, and a real solution to the Midtown question. On the other hand, the negatives are painfully clear: gambling addiction, opportunity crime, maxed-out entertainment dollars, and the undesirable situation of having a sovereign nation controlling prime real estate at the heart of the city. In the end, I came to the conclusion that although the positives outweighed most of the negatives, the thought of ceding a large chunk of downtown to a sovereign and non-taxable nation was simply too much to accept.

After a three year hiatus, the issue is back in the public eye once again. State Senator Joe Robach has introduced legislation to bring the issue of casino gambling to referendum by New York voters. He feels that Indian nations should not be given exclusive access to developing casinos in the State. Under his plan, New Yorkers would vote on whether to give individual counties the power to allow privately-developed, and taxable, casinos. I am in complete support of this proposal. The idea of allowing a sovereign nation to control land at the heart of our cities is obscene. What would Niagara Falls and/or Buffalo do if the Senecas decided to do something other than operate a casino on their land that would otherwise be illegal in those respective cities? Did the treaties New York State signed with the Senecas control for that? If we are going to have casino gaming in our cities, the economic benefits of that gaming should accrue to the city which hosts it, not to a sovereign nation with little stake in the community.

Past studies have shown that there would be tangible economic benefit to having a casino in Downtown Rochester. Despite the ill effects a casino can have on a community, if done properly, a casino can indeed be a positive addition to a city's entertainment repertoire. With all of the attention being placed on the growing tourist trade in the Rochester area, this certainly wouldn't hurt. I would be hestitant to accept a downtown casino if it did not meet the following conditions: make full use of the Midtown Plaza site, redevelop the Midtown Tower as the casino's primary hotel, build the mid-sized theatre that would be home to Garth Fagan Dance with little to no public dollars, pay full taxes for the casino property, and give the majority of the 1,300 or more jobs to city residents. If Wilmorite, or some other developer, was able to meet these conditions, how could we possibly turn it down? Then again, what if they fail?