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.