It's gone from hot topic to footnote in a matter of weeks. Mall magnate and Wilmorite CEO Tom Wilmot's proposal for an Indian-run casino in downtown Rochester seems dead in the water.
First, Governor George Pataki told the media he wasn't even considering a Rochester location. Then news came out of Albany that all land-claim settlement talks between the Indian tribes and the state hit a dead end. Finally, just this past weekend, the Democrat and Chronicle reported that the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe, which had been interested in Rochester, is now eying the Catskills.
Sitting at an interesting intersection among all this is nine-year Democratic County Legislator Chris Wilmot. Not only is he a nephew of Tom Wilmot, he's also an investor in the Wilmorite subsidiary that's trying to bring a casino to downtown Rochester. And in his words, "there's still some life" in the Casino Rochester proposal.
In a recent interview, Wilmot described his involvement in what he considers to be an "amazing project." He also expressed his concern over Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson's vocal opposition to not only the casino, but Wegmans' proposal to build a store on Elmwood Avenue. And that's where we begin our edited transcript.
Wilmot: When I first entered public office, when I first ran in '95, if I could point to any public official who I would have considered a mentor or a visionary, it was certainly Bill Johnson. In fact, one of the pivotal political moments of my life was in early '94 or '95, when David Rusk, the [former] mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, came and spoke at the Eisenhart Auditorium.
And that's where I became a believer in a metropolitan vision. That includes some government consolidation, some consolidation of services in municipalities, etc. So when I was sworn in in early '96, if I could look to anyone to say "there's somebody who I'm shooting for, who has a vision, who I see as a political ally," it was Bill Johnson. Over the years, unfortunately, because of the course Mayor Johnson has taken, my opinion has certainly changed, probably most dramatically in the last six months to a year. And I've grown, like many people in the community, concerned about the many aggressive stances he's taken.
If not the casino, then what? If not Wegmans on Elmwood, what are we going to do with that monstrosity that just sits there mostly, if not entirely, empty. It's not an eyesore, but it's indicative of urban decline. So this is about how my perceptions of Mayor Johnson have changed over his tenure, and also about the steady and precipitous decline of downtown Rochester, specifically East Main Street between the Hyatt and Midtown, where I think we've seen the greatest commercial carnage, if you will.
City: How do you think the city should respond to big private development proposals like Wegmans and the casino?
Wilmot: Bill Johnson has the right as mayor to support or oppose any project. But what struck me is he was so vocal in his opposition to the casino proposal. Yet, either by silence or by word and deed, he is supportive of VLTs [Video Lottery Terminals] on the fast ferry. He was one of the creators of that vision to have a ferry. I see some inconsistencies there which disturb me.
Frankly, if the mayor or anyone else thinks they're gonna try and do away with what they consider to be vice in the city or county as it pertains to wagering or gaming, then what about all the Lotto machines the state supplies for what seems like every third corner store or mini mart? What about the Racino at Finger Lakes? What about the Buffalo raceway? You can go on and on.
I find it rather stunning and amazing to think there would be any other mayor at this moment in American history who would so quickly and aggressively turn away from a half-billion-dollar investment that's all private money. Unlike the Renaissance Square project, which has some merit but not a lot, the casino is not dependent on tax money.
The state is virtually bankrupt. The county, city, and the city school district are all in real trouble. The City of Buffalo and the County of Erie are looking at mergers. Is this the time to so quickly say no to something that, while it certainly may cause some problems, is a half-a-billion dollar, 24-hour entertainment complex? The casino brings a new entertainment venue that doesn't exist in Monroe County.
And then this coupled with the mayor's seemingly impulsive opposition to the Wegmans on Elmwood.... I don't know. This just doesn't seem like the mayor I remember.
City: Both of these projects really came down to some pretty heavy location issues, particularly the casino. The fact that a sovereign nation would occupy a slab of Main Street became an issue. I'm not sure the mayor ever came out and said he was opposed to gambling per se.
Wilmot: That's a good point, but I'll say two things about that: The sovereign nation thing is a red herring. Right now those properties --- the Sibley Building, which my family owns, and Midtown --- because there's such little economic activity there and because Sibley continues to lose tenants and Midtown has lost so many tenants over the years, you've got to compare the minimum tax revenue that's being generated by these properties right now to the revenue the city would receive through the pact.
People say we'll lose our taxing authority on that land. Yeah, true. But the pact that would be signed by the tribe, the state, and the federal government would mandate that, like Niagara Falls, the city would receive X percentage of the "user fee" or whatever you want to call it. We're talking probably, and I'm guessing, $10 to $15 million that would go to the city. Ironically, that's almost the same amount that would close the city school district gap.
Secondly, I work on the 10th floor of the Sibley Building. That area all the way to the Hyatt Hotel is a complete economic disaster. It's an embarrassment to the community and to the region.
When I was first there several years ago, I was working on a Sunday and I was taking a break. I walked down Main Street. A very nice Japanese couple approached me and asked me where they could buy a pack of gum. And it took me a long time to come up with an answer. What an embarrassment.
Bruegger's just closed at Four Corners because there's no business on the weekends. If I could sum up my opinion of Main Street in one statement: If a McDonald's or Wendy's can't stay open on some street in America, you know that street is finished.
The majority of people on Main Street, unfortunately, have just enough money for bus fare. The street is dominated by people who cannot engage in commerce, unfortunately. And that's not their fault. But because of poor city planning, and saying no to half a billion dollars in investment, this is why Main Street is dead.
I don't think Mayor Johnson is fully to blame for East Main Street. But his recent attitude against development --- frankly, by my family's company, that has been doing business in this community for 60 years, and the Wegmans family, which is at least as successful as my family --- I find it astounding.
City: You mention the city revenue that could come along with a downtown casino. But a lot of that would be determined by whatever compact the state enters with the Seneca-Cayugas, right?
Wilmot: Yes. But I'm not privy to the intricacies of the negotiations. When I threw out the term "$10 or $15 million," that was actually based more on what Niagara Falls, New York, did with Seneca-Niagara. So that's a real ballpark, off-the-cuff remark.
In terms of what the state and the city might get, I really have no idea. I just don't know.
City: How did you come to be an investor in the casino?
Wilmot: I knew my uncle was forming a casino management and developing company. So I asked if I could be an investor, and he said yes.
My company, Endless Wave Productions LLC, owns a limited-partner share in the entity that's trying to build the casino downtown and some other places, too. So I'm a limited-partner investor in the project.
City: Given the impasse the state has reached with the Indian tribes over land claims, and given the fact that the governor said he wasn't even looking at Rochester as a site, isn't this a dead issue?
Wilmot: I don't agree. I think the governor's stance was almost like a cooling-off period. My understanding is that the tribes' legal actions against the state are still very much in limbo. The tribes would like to settle. The state would like to settle.
It's ironic that after it was announced in the D&C that the casino was not going to happen here, a couple of days later a poll comes out saying 51 percent of respondents would actually support a downtown casino.
I'm an investor. I'm not going to pretend I'm not biased here. But one of the reasons I am an investor is because I'm a believer, like my grandfather and my uncle, that to create jobs and make something economically viable, you have to take risks. You have to think big.
I work right there in that building. And I know that without some investment, the future of that stretch of East Main Street is bleak. It's easy for my liberal Democrat friends to say no, no, no, casinos are a horrible idea. They have no money to put on the table for any other idea, but they want somebody else to come up with the money for something that's more digestible to them. I find that depressing and I find it naïve.
City:You represent a large portion of people living in the city...
City: Some of those people certainly object to the casino. How would you answer to their objections, given your role as county legislator and any potential conflicts that would arise if a casino were to be built downtown?
Wilmot: As a county legislator, I would never vote on a downtown casino, so there's no direct conflict of interest.
I've never taken a poll of my district on this, so I'm not sure what people's feelings are. My sense is that if everybody is focused on gaming tables and slot machines and social ills, it's easy to see the casino as a bad thing. But if you look at the whole thing, you see there's a hotel attached to it. There are restaurants and gift shops. There's a performing arts space. And the kind of performance space built there might not necessitate a Renaissance Square project.
I think the casino --- because of the sovereignty, because you can bring in these private dollars and taxpayers aren't soaked like they would be for Renaissance Square --- is an amazing opportunity. That area is screaming out for something. If it's not going to be a casino, then what? Who's got the money? Who's got an idea? A casino might even spin off some subsidiary businesses in that neighborhood.
City: Let's review some of the information passed along in the Center for Governmental Research casino study commissioned by Wilmorite. You talk about the casino bringing more than gaming downtown. You mentioned the hotel and restaurants and entertainment. The study says all of that could harm the hotels, nightclubs, and restaurants already there.
Wilmot: Competition in a capitalistic society is competition. When Wegmans builds a store anywhere, is Tops going to feel it? Of course.
Could there be some negative impact on nearby venues? Nobody knows until the casino opens. But the amounts of money are so staggering, for a community that's struggling badly, it doesn't make sense to dismiss it. Is there some risk posed to neighboring businesses? Yes, absolutely. But no one has an indefinite right to operate a business unencumbered by competition.
City: The study also points to the risks of saturation, the fact that we already have a number of casinos in the region.
Wilmot: The longer Monroe County waits to do something like this, casinos will get closer and closer. Then what?
Saturation is certainly an issue. But I don't think we're even close to that yet. We have 730,000 people in this county. We have 1.1 million in the metro area. Lots of those people would use a casino. Route 390 serves as a gateway to Geneseo, Dansville, Corning. Some of them would go to Salamanca, but others would come here, because we have more than a casino; we have a metropolitan area with a lot of other activities to engage in.
City:Another question raised in the study: Will people choose a Rochester casino for an overnight stay when we're competing with Casino Niagara and Turning Stone?
Wilmot: Turning Stone is more of a resort. They have three hotels. You don't have the same kind of land availability in downtown Rochester, and you certainly don't have room for a golf course. Would it be a different kind of a resort? Absolutely. It would be more of an urban resort.
But I think there's sufficient distance here. It would be different if there was a casino similar to the proposal for downtown Rochester in Batavia or Geneseo or Canandaigua. But we're talking at least 110 miles to Turning Stone from downtown Rochester and at least 85 or 90 to Niagara Falls, New York.
If this were to happen, it's unique enough that, for a number of years, the draw would be substantial. I don't know how many converts there'd be. I think people who've been in the middle and unsure about the casino, many of them would be won over.
I think there would always be people opposed. But who's ever proposed anything in the history of humans that didn't have vociferous and frequent opposition? The most interesting projects go on to generate the most opposition.
I'm all about keeping young people in Rochester. I'd like to create reasons for people to stay. We've been losing left and right. We just lost Jillian's. We lost Empire Brewing. Brü replaced it, and that's good. But there's a number of things that have closed, restaurants particularly. That's partly due to the recession, but, the fact is, our young people don't stay around here.
Are they gonna say "Hey, Rochester opened a casino; I'm definitely staying now"? No. But it adds to the mix. It's something interesting you won't find in downtown Syracuse, downtown Albany, downtown Erie, a lot of other places.
City: The mayor has expressed anger over the fact that your uncle has been bankrolling the Seneca-Cayugas while a Wilmorite subsidiary, Rochwil, owes the city close to $14 million in back taxes on the Sibley Building, which it owns.
Wilmot: I'm gonna say no comment. My understanding is that my uncle's position is that Rochwil doesn't owe the city a dime. The city claims it owes about $14 million. I'll be very honest: I'm not in a position, for a lot of reasons, to comment on that. I really don't know.
Another way to answer that might be: In these economically distressed sections, especially East Main Street, the city is probably, from a number of properties, receiving minimal tax revenue because there's such little business.
Look at Blue Cross-Blue Shield. Max Farash puts them 15 or so years ago into Gateway Center. I toured that facility back then, and it was beautiful. And Blue Cross-Blue Shield seemed happy there. But what do they do? They move three or four blocks away and build a new building. They stay downtown, which is nice. But the fact is, that whole strip has suffered miserably, and the city could be in a position to reap a large amount of cash every year from an amazing project.
There's something called "opportunity cost," too. What's the cost of not pursuing economically viable opportunities that are unique and different, that people in the United States, and in New York even, seem to like? I was at Turning Stone, and you know who's there? I didn't see low-income people. When I looked at people's clothing, at the cars they arrived in, you know what? These were middle-class elderly or middle-aged people. People with disposable incomes who were gaming.
Would some people suffer from gaming? That happens everywhere. But it's an entertainment option for people who chose to use it.
What about millions who would come to the city who are presently not coming? The city suffers a financial shortfall every year. Like the city school district, like the County of Monroe. And pretty soon that will start spreading to the towns. We are in a fairly deep recession around here.
Is the casino a savior in terms of economic development and jobs? Absolutely not. However, what mayor, what city council in the US is saying no to a half-billion dollars so quickly? We're talking 2,000 permanent jobs and tons of construction jobs to rehab these facilities. Something's wrong here. Something's wrong when a guy like Bob Wegman, who has put his heart and soul into one of the best businesses in the US, is getting a "no" from the mayor so quickly. Something needs to be closely looked at.
I'm a Democrat. But I'm about job creation.
City: But wouldn't a lot of the casino jobs just be filled by people with jobs elsewhere in the community?
Wilmot: I can't dispute that, but I will say this: Look and tool and die shops. Let's say we opened a new one. I can't imagine a big giant uproar that says "Hey, wait." Would there be some displacement? Sure. But that creates another opening somewhere else. Without serious population growth, that's a decent issue to raise. But I also think it's a bit fallacious. It's not specific to this project. It's true of any development.
City: The objection to the Elmwood Avenue Wegmans seemed to be about location as well. Neighbors didn't want it and that area isn't zoned to handle high-intensity commercial traffic.
Wilmot: The mayor is privy to some things I'm not in terms of zoning and planning issues. But I've lived here for 39 years. Elmwood Avenue is two lanes in that section. That road has been repaired and updated within the last several years.
The point to me, though, is that we've got this behemoth sitting there. To me, it's not ugly to look at, but it serves no purpose. No company, no governmental entity is saying we can't wait to put our offices in that building. When I drive by it, nothing is going on there. There are no cars in the parking lot. And I don't see anyone else with the ability to raise the money to develop a first-class operation and to open it. I don't see anyone else proposing anything for that site.
I don't want this community to become a community of naysayers. Just because somebody else proposed it and for a second somebody else didn't like it doesn't mean it's a bad proposal. The fact is, there is support in different quarters for these projects.
When they expanded Wegmans in Pittsford, there was some outcry. I know this can't be a credo you always apply to development, but if not that proposal then what is somebody else proposing? There's a letter in CityNewspaper today [with suggestions for uses for the Sibley Building]. Hey, I like some of those ideas. But it's like Cuba Gooding Jr. said: Show me the money. That can't be discounted. It's desperately hard to raise money. It's easy to talk about.
All my uncle and others like [Rump Group Chairman and Jasco Tools CEO] Dutch Summers have said is, "Let's keep an open mind here. Let's not be so dismissive so quickly." Many were dismissive of the fast ferry. Many are dismissive of the new soccer stadium. I support both, actually. Things take time. Ideas need to be fleshed out.
I support what Wegmans is going to do at East Avenue and Winton. That's my neighborhood. I can walk there. Will it be disruptive? Will it tear down the old Brighton Town Hall? I propose we incorporate that somehow into the storefront, or create a new façade that looks almost identical to the old Brighton Town Hall. There are ways to do things where you keep people happy about the historical nature of the neighborhood.
The casino project could be open to compromise on some design aspects. But again, for a community that's suffering, we don't have the luxury to say, "Nah, there's a $4 billion proposal coming down the road we like better." There's no $4 billion proposal. There's this proposal. And the opportunity at some point will pass. It hasn't passed yet, I don't think. There's still some life here. Others will decide, and I just hope they'll keep an open mind.