PHILADELPHIA, PA. — On the western shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, north of Interstate 676, lies the historic Fishtown neighborhood. It is one of the city’s oldest industrial neighborhoods, dating back to the fishing industry in the 1700’s.
By the turn of the 21st century, Fishtown was a failing neighborhood, and many of Philadelphia’s legacy industries had pulled out, leaving a landscape of shuttered factories and empty warehouses. But over the past decade the trend of vacancy has reversed, with a number of restaurants and residential spaces occupying the old buildings. Since 2010, SugarHouse Casino has been central to the transformation.
Built on the site of an old sugar refinery, SugarHouse Casino saw monumental growth in its first five years, leading to a $164 million expansion that opened in May 2016. The demand on the casino forced managers to expand from 1,200 jobs to now more than 1,700 employees.
And SugarHouse’s ownership company, Rush Street Gaming, says its newest casino in Schenectady will be modeled after the success in Fishtown. The company has hired some previous leaders from the Philadelphia property to manage Rivers Casino–Schenectady; among them is new general manager Mary Cheeks, as well as SugarHouse’s former director of gaming operations.
“There is a wealth of experience, there's charming personalities,” says SugarHouse’s current general manager Wendy Hamilton, who has worked with many new members of Schenectady’s leadership team.
“These are people that I truly love,” Hamilton says, “and they're going to do a great job."
The physical building in Schenectady will also mirror SugarHouse Casino, albeit on a smaller scale. Schenectady will have a little more than half of the table games that SugarHouse boasts, and roughly 700 fewer slots. But many design elements from the new expansion in Philadelphia will be present in Schenectady, including lighting elements and the design of the high-limit gaming area. The Rivers Casino in Schenectady will also include a multi-purpose event center similar to Philadelphia’s, and a number of local partner restaurants.
But even with a top-of-the-line, brand new facility, built in a state where licensed casino gaming has never before existed, Rivers Casino–Schenectady will need to prove its long-term viability by sustaining revenues. In its application to New York’s Gaming Commission, Rivers Casino estimated it would annually earn $223 million when operating at full capacity. $4.1 million would be shared with the city and county, each. Another $1 million would be set aside for the Schenectady City School District each year.
The numbers are flashy, and should be sustainable in the short term — according to economist Ryan Gallagher, a Northeastern Illinois University professor who has studied the gaming market in Illinois and nationwide.
“With New York going from no commercial casinos to four new commercial casinos, there’s probably plenty of demand so that this will generate positive revenues,” Gallagher says.
He cautions, however, that gaming participation has declined as a whole. In Illinois, for example, participation has declined 20% over five years. Lesser participation and gaming market saturation have also been blamed for the closure of casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Rivers Casino–Des Plaines disputed Gallagher vehemently: “While traditional casino attendance has fallen, total gaming revenue in Illinois has increased significantly -- by 71%,” the company said in a statement.
Any recent movement in casino gaming participation or revenue is hard to quantify in New York, which will not have any state-licensed casinos until Rivers opens in early 2017. But Gallagher says with six Native American-run casinos and a host of slot machines across New York already, the debut of casino gaming now is not likely to be the panacea it might have been before.
“It’s still going to generate revenue, it’s still going to create jobs,” he says. “But maybe about half as many jobs, or half as much revenue as there would have been ten or fifteen years ago.”
Despite that, Gallagher says there is no reason to believe Rivers Casino cannot succeed for Schenectady, and also maintained that it would not significantly cannibalize the Native American-operated casino two hours away in Verona.
Rush Street Gaming, which operates Rivers Casino–Schenectady, released statement confident in its ability to succeed for Schenectady:
"We are very comfortable with the market potential of the Capital Region, and have sized our facility accordingly,” the company said. “Rivers Casino in Schenectady will be a high-quality entertainment destination with gaming options that can't be found without traveling several hours from the Capital Region.
“We will be easily accessible, and offer great dining options and other amenities, along with a superior customer experience,” the statement continued. “This is a formula that has worked well in our other markets, and we are excited about our prospects in the Capital Region."