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Small minds, small ideas

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So now we'll do city planning by opinion poll.

The Democrat and Chronicle, WOKR TV, and WXXI had the polling company Zogby International ask MonroeCounty residents whether they want a casino, and the answer, apparently, is a fairly strong yes.

A slight majority --- 51 percent --- want one. Only 38 percent don't. The rest are undecided.

Governor Pataki has said that he wouldn't agree to developer Tom Wilmot's casino plan unless there was community support. Well, crowed the D&C editorial page on Sunday, there is support. The D&C's own poll says so.

This is just absurd.

I'm willing to keep an open mind about casinos, and I realize that in some other regions, they've been an economic boost. But first of all, the genesis of this particular scheme makes me twitchy. Hatched in secret negotiations between the governor, Wilmot, and the Seneca-Cayuga Indian tribe, it seemed to be roaring ahead --- although even the mayor wasn't able to get information about it from the governor.

Now, the governor says there are no negotiations. Our local daily, becoming newsmaker as well as news reporter with its poll, is urging the governor to keep the door open.

Certainly any idea for improving this sad economy is worth studying. And certainly the opinion of an informed public is important.

But Zogby didn't poll an informed public. And the poll itself was simplistic. Basically, it asked you whether you favor a casino in Monroe County, where it should be located, what its main benefit and problem would be, whether you would use it, and if so, for what (entertainment, gambling, restaurants, shopping).

This is very hypothetical stuff. How hypothetical? More than 17 percent of the people who responded to the poll said they would go to the casino for shopping --- almost as many as said they would go there for gambling (19.6 percent). What kind of shopping? Who knows? Monrovians just like to shop.

And how about this: the casino's biggest attraction (drawing 27 percent) would be "entertainment." What kind of entertainment? The seductive entertainment of the bells and whistles of slot machines? Las Vegas-type, super-star music and comedy acts?

No matter. Now we know that Monrovians want a casino. And we know what they'd do there.

What if Zogby had asked questions that were a bit more complicated? What if Zogby had put the questions in some context?

What if, for instance, Zogby had asked questions like these:

• If you learned that a casino would probably drain business from nearby bars, clubs, and restaurants, forcing some of them out of business, would you support a casino?

• If you learned that a casino hotel might drain business from other downtown hotels, which already have occupancy problems, would you support a casino?

• If you learned that by driving other downtown establishments out of business, the casino would lead to more empty buildings and lower property values downtown, would you support a casino?

The casino's threats to other downtown businesses are cited in a recent study by the Center for Governmental Research. (See this newspaper's report, "Win? Lose? Draw?," July 7, available on the web, www.rochester-citynews.com. And the report itself is available at www.cgr.org.)

If the casino did drive other downtown businesses under, warns the CGR report, "the benefit of addressing blight at Sibley and Midtown would be partially undone by shifting the blight to business locations now viable."

And what if Zogby reminded us that the casino and hotel would remove two large downtown properties from the tax rolls, and that our taxes would increase to make up the difference? Would we still support a casino?

Dangers like these have been all but buried by the Democrat and Chronicle's hype of the Wilmot proposal. And the local business leaders who are embracing the casino idea apparently don't care much about the dangers, either.

Then there are the risky projections for the casino itself. We'll get the economic boosts everybody's raving about only if the Wilmot casino is successful. And, the CGR study warned, that's increasingly speculative given the proliferation of casinos in Upstate New York.

And there's the irony: one of the big reasons supporters give for wanting a casino is that everybody else has one. Forget about the unique attributes we used to brag about. Follow the crowd.

It's hard to watch what's been happening elsewhere. This month Chicago has been celebrating the completion of its massive MillenniumPark, an astonishing collection of work and landscaping by internationally known architects and artists. A Wall Street Journal article on how the project came about describes the public and private fund-raising --- and the growth of MillenniumPark from a $30 million proposal to the final $475 million.

How'd Chicago do that? The project's promoters and fundraisers thought big. Journal writer Joel Henning cites a quote attributed to Daniel Burnham, the architect for Chicago's World Columbia Exposition and one of the originators of Chicago's important early city plan. "Make no little plans," Burnham is supposed to have said. "They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans."

Sure, Rochester's not Chicago. But there's plenty in Rochester from which to fashion big plans: water, exquisite natural beauty, a temperate climate, an amazing collection of educational and cultural institutions, artists, museums, and actors.

Other cities have done far more with far less. San Antonio has turned itself from a relative backwater in a steamy climate into an economic powerhouse and tourist attraction --- because one man had big thoughts about its river. Austin launched megagrowth with a large university, a music festival, and public and business officials who thought big.

But in Rochester, we've got our eyes on a casino.

I am getting really tired of this. And discouraged. It's all so very, very Rochester.

Must be something in the water.

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