Monday, November 29, 2010

Look to Bethlehem

Anytime someone suggests that a casino in Fall River could have more negative effects than positive ones it seems the answer is to look to Bethlehem. Mention that a casino could bring more crime, or more social issues and the answer is look to Bethlehem.

Oh this isn't some sort of indicator to have some religious faith, no instead the example that I've heard various city councilors and local radio hosts and a few pro-casino folks cite is Bethlehem Pennsylvania.

Now every time I've heard this I've ignored it. Even if things WERE working out fantastic with a new casino in Bethlehem that was simply ONE example versus multiple studies and other cities where casinos have had negative impacts. However, now with it clear that the Mayor is unwilling to let this drop or to even slow down and take a more cautious approach I figured it was time to look into this for myself.

What I found was that while the casino has 5,000 slots it employs 750-800 full time workers with benefits. In fact the article that I found to be the most objective stated that no casino in Pennsylvania employs more than 1,200. Now slots isn't the all mighty indicator on employment but it does suggest a certain size casino. By comparison, the proposed Fall River casino is to have 2,500 slots. Does this indicate 3,000-5,000 jobs that been touted so much by the administration or closer to 325-400 full time jobs that a comparison with Pennsylvania would indicate?

So looking to Bethlehem what I get is doubt about the number of jobs a Fall River casino will bring.

Still Bethlehem's mayor is pleased that the anticipated drawbacks of a casino haven't happened. He's quick to point out that crime hasn't gone up. (In fact as of last Spring it had gone down.) Traffic hasn't gotten worse and the character of the city hasn't changed. This all sounds great, but if you read into it a bit more you start to wonder. Crime hasn't increased and the mayor believes this is because more people are working but also before the casino was built there was a ramp up of the police force. (perhaps expecting the worst?) Traffic hasn't gotten worse but (as we'll touch on later) the casino hasn't been the economic powerhouse it was thought to be and a proposed hotel hadn't been built.

So looking to Bethlehem what I get is the character hasn't changed but the casino has not been the overwhelming success it was thought to be. They still don't have a hotel, most patrons are daytrippers (or local). What if Fall River's casino doesn't meet expectations? Will we be so lucky crime-wise? We're already the 4th most dangerous city in Massachusetts!

The Mayor says he wants Bethlehem to be the place where people say they did casinos right and the article ticks of a short list of what went into that approach:
1. Find the right site
2. Find the right operator
3. Get the zoning right
4. Work with your neighbors
5. Figure out your infrastructure needs in advance

Here in Fall River:
1. No other site has been seriously considered
2. No other operator has been courted
3. No discussion has taken place on what zoning changes may be appropriate
4. Surrounding communities have not been taken into consideration or even part of the discussion
5. No discussion of the impact on infrastructure has taken place.

Now, while Bethlehem is more than breaking even the article states they're not making any serious money. The article also says that due to economy that hotel construction was put on hold. (No hotel?? Maybe you can reserve a manger...after all it IS Bethlehem!)

So I look to Bethlehem and see that actual revenue may be a lot less than what we're thinking. It also isn't too hard to think that if that's the case the proposal for Fall River could be seriously scaled back.

Now what's interesting about the casino in Bethlehem is that it's built on the site of a former steel mill. This was something the city pushed for because it would jump start some revitalization of an existing site that needed to be cleaned up. The development was also considerate of the city's history and the legacy of the site itself. I think this one of the reasons why the casino hasn't changed the character of the city because it was designed to blend and fit it. Now when various suitors talked about building a casino there was a lot of interest in building it in the outskirts of the city. This was something Bethlehem expressed no interest in what-so-ever. Bethlehem specifically wanted the development to revitalize an existing piece to the city and felt that a casino on the outskirts of town would simply harm the city's downtown.

So when I look to Bethlehem I see a city that worked to avoid a proposal like the one our Mayor is so aggressively pushing. I see a city that used casino development as a way to spur revitalization, not just economic but urban revitalization. I also see a development that very aware of not hurting the existing business environment. (In fact, this reminds me a lot of New Bedford's NStar proposal which I've always thought made more sense than what was being pushed here...)

Despite the intent, the data so far indicates that casino patrons eat at the casino and shop at the casino and very little of that business seems to trickle down to the rest of the community, again despite the original efforts to encourage it to.

To combat the worry about an increase in crime and negative effects on the city, Bethlehem hired additional officers ramping up before the casino opened. They also changed zoning so that no adult entertainment, pawn shops, and checking cashing establishments could set up near the casino.

Again, has any discussion about zoning in Fall River? Has there been any effort to ramp up our police staff? Yes we've hired back officers but I'm not sure we're even back to full staffing levels.

Bethlehem is also sharing a portion of its hosting fees with other nearby communities with the idea that they too would also share in any negative effects.

Fall River hasn't made, nor I doubt will make any such suggestion to do the same.

While Bethlehem is yet to realize any of the tourism dollars they hoped for they may already be seeing signs of social issues. Compulsive gambling issues seem to be on the rise in Pennsylvania. Calls to a statewide hot-line have doubled since the first casino opened in PA just 4 years ago. Also the age old argument that a casino in Massachusetts will simply rake in the money destined for Connecticut doesn't hold water in Pennsylvania's experience. What their experience suggests is that if the casino is just a mile away folks with addictive tendencies will go more often and lose more money than if they had to travel 100 miles. The social issues this causes become ours as a community to deal with.

So when I look to Bethlehem, the shining example of how casinos can work I see that it's not quite the bright light advocates want to paint it out to be.

The source I relied on most heavily for this post is an article from CommonWealth Magazine. It is a pretty balanced look and is well worth a read. You can find it here.


Anonymous said...

The 3000-4000 jobs will be realized through new construction. They won't be working at the casino.

Lefty said...

From a news article that ran in the Taunton Gazette, June, 9, 2010 (although I'm sure it ran in the Herald too)..

"Joined by Sen. Joan Menard, D-Fall River, Flanagan told the members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee that locating a destination resort style casino in the city’s borders would result in 1,000 construction jobs and anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs."

I've said it before, let's see a breakdown of all those jobs and how many are full time vs. part time and what the hourly wage and estimated annual earnings would be.

Bethlehem has twice as many slots and yet only has 800 full time jobs with benefits.

Anonymous said...

Only idiots and union think it is more important to do things in the name of construction jobs than the purpose of the items being built.

On that matter, I suggest that we turn the whole State Forest into housing projects, LNG tanks, toxic waste disposal facilities, and a Nuclear Power plant to boot. Do you know how many jobs that will create???

See the logic?

No one cares about the construction jobs because they are not permanent. So shut up about construction jobs.

Middleboro Review said...

Again, thanks for describing the issues surrounding Gambling accurately.

Regarding CRIME, it might give pause when it's described this vaguely: "He's quick to point out that crime hasn't gone up."

Casino Proponents deny any increase in crime and the cost of additional police officers is conveniently omitted. Who paid those costs?

Increased crime and personal bankruptcies, in the cases I've reviewed are noticeable regionally, in other words, not simply the host community.

You might also find this interesting:

Maine: Bangor crime rate highest in the state

Since 2005, when Hollywood Slots opened, crime in Bangor has gone up every year, while the statewide rate has remained steady and communities of Bangor’s size have seen decreases. Portland’s crime rate, for instance, has dropped 3 percent since 2005 and Lewiston’s has fallen by 9 percent.

“We don’t know if the casino is linked to the increase in the city’s crime rate, but with all due respect to the city’s police officials, their explanations are unsatisfactory,” said Dennis Bailey, executive director of CasinosNO! “They only seem to count the number of calls they get to respond to incidents on the casino property, but the problems linked to gambling addiction are much more insidious and harder to determine.”

From 2005 to 2006, Bangor’s crime rate rose from 51.65 to 63.01 per 1,000 residents. In 2008, crime increased to 65.07 per 1,000 and this year, the rate eclipsed 70.

Bailey with CasinosNO! argued that crimes can sometimes be attributed to Hollywood Slots even if a direct link is not there.

“For example, if someone gambles away all of his money so he can’t afford to buy dinner and gets caught stealing a can of tuna fish at Shaws, is that a casino-related crime or just shoplifting?” Bailey said. “If someone gambles away the family’s nest egg, goes home and gets into an argument with his wife that results in a physical altercation, is that a casino-related crime or listed as domestic violence?”

For whatever reason, the Bangor Police Chief would readily dismiss a 40% increase in crime.

Middleboro Review said...

You might find this of interesting regarding the issue of crime surrounding Bethlehem:

Increased Crime Effecting Region

Crime up in Hellertown

Borough wants share of gaming money to pay for two more officers.

Hellertown is hoping to get gaming revenue to pay for two more police officers to battle an increase in crime the borough has seen since the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem moved next door.

Police Chief Robert Shupp told Borough Council this week that crime and arrests are up since last year and that means more overtime for officers testifying in court. The increase includes mostly drug crimes and drunken driving but also some counterfeiting, prostitution and other infractions.

"We're encountering drugs we didn't encounter in Hellertown [before]," including methamphetamine and heroin, Shupp said in an interview.

In the year before the casino opened in May 2009, borough police had 35 drug arrests; in the year following they had 102. Drunken driving arrests rose from 51 to 76 in the same period. Hellertown police responded to 5,752 calls in the 14 months before Sands opened and 7,222 in the 14 months after, Shupp said.

Shupp said the increase doesn't mean that all the offenders are coming from the casino but it was the only major change in the area during that time.

Bethlehem has hired more officers and as they step up patrols, criminal activity might be migrating to the borough, he speculated.

Before the casino came to Bethlehem, surrounding communities were assured that there would be money to deal with any negative impacts, he said.

"That casino has been open a year and a half and we haven't seen one dime," Shupp said. "I can't blame the Sands because the Sands are fulfilling … their obligations. They're giving the money; we just haven't seen it."

Hellertown and other communities surrounding the casino — Freemansburg and Bethlehem and Hanover, Lower Saucon and Bethlehem townships, as well as Northampton County — are eligible to apply for a pot of gaming revenue to help mitigate its negative effects. By January, that pot — called the restricted fund — is expected to be about $1.2 million, Kovacs said.

Anonymous said...

Bethlehem is where the SAVIOR was born. The salvation of Fall River could be in a casino though I doubt it.