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Looking for hope from a Midtown casino


So... casinos again.

Every few years, somebody wants to build a casino here. Back around 2004, the location of interest was the Sibley Building downtown. More recently, it was Medley Centre. Then Henrietta.Now, downtown Rochester again.

And understandably, the possibility offered by developer Robert Morgan has the mayor's interest. Morgan has suggested a casino for Parcel 5 on the Midtown property. That's the land that fronts on Main Street, where McCurdy's used to be.

Parcel 5 is a key downtown site - key for a developer, and key for the future of the center city. The right development could spur others and boost what's already underway. The wrong development....

The mayor is particularly interested because Morgan's plan would include a performing arts center, which has been on a lot of people's wish list for years. The casino would be on the first two floors, and the performing arts center would sit on top of it. The Seneca Nation would own the complex, and we'd get a performing arts center, free.

Presumably, the Rochester Broadway Theatre League would handle the operations, booking Broadway musicals and other big acts that they now put on in the Auditorium Theatre. And RBTL has always insisted that with a new theater, more and bigger shows could be brought in.

I continue to worry about the fate of the Auditorium Theatre if RBTL moves those shows out. Its leaders say they would continue to book events into the Aud, but I wonder if there would be enough of them to maintain that facility.

There's little question, though, that a performing arts center would be a strong addition to downtown. And the people who go to those events could also spend money in nearby restaurants and bars. The center would further enliven downtown, which means that for many people, it would be one more reason to live downtown.

But a casino? I'm not outright opposed; I want to learn more. But I'm skeptical. Mayor Warren wants to find ways to increase employment opportunities in Rochester, and casinos do have a track record of providing jobs that pay decent wages.

But casinos have plenty of negatives. Most often cited are the societal costs of gambling. But there are others. Casinos like to keep their customers close, and their complexes often contain restaurants, which not only discourage their own patrons from leaving but can also attract patrons from nearby restaurants and bars. Casinos may even put those competitors out of business, offsetting the job growth their own operation creates.

A casino could bring more people downtown, then, but it might be the only winner.

And is a casino the best use for that important piece of property? Clearly, the mayor will want to be sure that it won't have a negative impact on its neighbors - including the planned housing and commercial development in the Sibley Building across the street and the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship, which formally opened last week just to the Sibley Building's east.

Casinos also face a new problem: saturation. The Northeast has simply built too many casinos. Atlantic City casinos' financial problems - caused by excess competition in the region - have been widely reported, but Upstate New York is also becoming saturated. And we're continuing to build.

When Governor Cuomo launched his campaign to encourage casino development in New York State, he billed it as an economic development tool. I was skeptical then; I'm more skeptical now. Seems to me that jobs with a future - and job training for the good jobs that are going unfilled now - are a better tool.

As for Rochester: I applaud the mayor's search for new ways to increase employment opportunities, particularly for Rochester's poor. But I hope none of us get carried away with the myth that casinos can be our economic salvation. That thinking carries as much risk as the tables in a casino.