Casino expansion fuels concern - Catholic Courier
A slot machine is depicted Jan. 7 on a digital sign atop Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, which stands across the street from St. Mary of the Cataract Church in Niagara Falls. The casino opened in 2002 next to the church, which was built in 1847. A slot machine is depicted Jan. 7 on a digital sign atop Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel, which stands across the street from St. Mary of the Cataract Church in Niagara Falls. The casino opened in 2002 next to the church, which was built in 1847.

Casino expansion fuels concern

Lago Resort and Casino, slated as the most expansive casino facility to date within the Diocese of Rochester, moved one significant step closer to reality following state officials’ recent recommendation that Wilmorite Properties of Rochester be licensed to build the $425-million complex in Seneca County.

A second casino could be sited in Nichols, Tioga County, if an existing racino there, Tioga Downs, gains state approval to expand its operations. Both plans arise from rapid growth of the commercial casino industry within New York state and nationwide. Allowed only in Nevada and New Jersey a mere quarter-century ago; such casinos are now legal in 23 states.

The proposed casinos in Seneca and Tioga counties would be state-sponsored, with the casinos providing payments to the state to be shared by local governments and schools. This benefit is a major selling point for casino developers and legislators — including Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who also trumpet such facilities as tonics for communities in need of jobs and other stimulants to the local economy.

Help for problem gambling is available

Help for problem gambling is available

Generally absent from sales pitches, however, is the fact that such benefits are only realized if casinos are profitable — and that a substantial profit only occurs if patrons gamble away lots of money.

According to a 2013 report by The Institute for American Values, a New York City think tank, a significant portion of casino revenue comes from people who gamble beyond a reasonable point. The report — which pooled several scholarly studies on casino gambling — shows that 33 percent to 55 percent of all casino revenue is derived from problem gamblers. Meanwhile, the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that 2 percent to 3 percent of the U.S. adult population can be considered problem or pathological gamblers.

Courier photo by Mike Crupi

An anti-casino sign can be seen directly across state Route 414 from the possible site of Lago Resort and Casino in the town of Tyre, Seneca County, Jan. 29.

Such statistics make Father Jim Fennessy wary about what might be coming to his neck of the woods.

"The negative effects of gambling are felt not only by the individual, but by their families and communities as well. Is that worth any positive gains we might get from it?" remarked Father Fennessy, pastor of St. Francis and St. Clare Roman Catholic Community in Waterloo and Seneca Falls. The parish is based less than 10 miles south of Tyre, where the Lago Resort and Casino is to be built.

Based on Father Michael Burzynski’s experience, Father Fennessy’s concern appears valid. In late 2002, the Seneca Niagara Casino opened in downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y. — right next door to St. Mary of the Cataract Church, where Father Burzynski was pastor from 2000-11. He said he had been "hoping for the best" and that many locals were counting on the splashy casino’s presence to bring relief to the economically crippled city.

"It was going to be a renaissance," said Father Burzynski, now the pastor of St. John Gualbert Parish in Cheektowaga. Although Seneca Niagara has attracted big crowds, Father Burzynski said the chief beneficiary has been the casino itself.

"It hasn’t developed the neighborhood at all. The money (spent by visitors) stayed inside there (the casino)," he remarked, adding that "there have been so many negatives — people stealing to support their gambling habits. You’re seeing this constantly."

Big business

Concern also has been expressed by the New York State Catholic Conference, the public-policy arm of the state’s bishops, which issued a cautionary statement in September 2013 in advance of a public referendum to approve state-sponsored casinos.

The Catholic conference noted that gambling "already is big business for the state," with a steep rise in recent years of multistate lotteries; such Indian-run casinos as Seneca Niagara; Off-Track Betting; scratch-off lotteries; and racinos — harness-racing tracks that also offer video slot machines and video poker. Two racinos have been established in the Rochester Diocese: Tioga Downs and Finger Lakes Gaming and Racetrack in Ontario County, which began offering video gaming in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

Citing all these gambling options as well as the oversaturation of casinos in neighboring states, the Catholic conference noted that "there is only so much revenue to be gained." It also expressed concern about problem gambling, stating that the presence of a casino doubles the likelihood of problem gambling within a 50-mile radius.

But voters approved the referendum in November 2013, and this past Dec. 17 the state’s Gaming Facility Location Board recommended that three upstate licenses be awarded — in Seneca County, where the Lago complex would be located, as well as Sullivan and Schenectady counties. The Gaming Commission is considering a fourth license for a Southern Tier locale, with Tioga Downs a leading candidate. As of press time March 26, no licenses have yet been issued.

Dennis Poust, communications director for the Catholic conference, said the state’s bishops remain concerned today as more casinos move closer to fruition.

"Our fear is that, as in so many other locales, the promises of economic relief for these communities will not pan out, and the misery of addiction and broken families will overwhelm any benefits," Poust said.

Yet the public appears unfazed, as evidenced by the spread of casino gambling nationwide — particularly with slot machines. The Institute for American Values noted that the number of such machines soared from fewer than 200,000 in 1991 to nearly 950,000 by 2010 — and that in 2013, slots made up 62 percent to 80 percent of casinos’ total gambling revenue, thanks in large part to computer technology that enables fast, continuous and addictive betting on modern slots.

A 24-hour temptation

Addiction is at the heart of the Catholic conference’s misgivings. The bishops cite No. 2413 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledges that games of chance "are not in themselves contrary to justice" but that "the passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement" and that such actions "become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others."

Asked how church officials can take a stand against gambling when bingo, casino nights and raffles have long provided revenue streams for Catholic parishes, Father Burzynski pointed out that church gambling involves far smaller amounts of money and time invested. A casino, on the other hand, "is there 365 days a year, 24 hours a day," he said.

To reduce problem gambling, Lago Resort and Casino claims on its website that it will offer an on-site "responsible gaming resource center" and will partner with local mental-health officials to fund treatment. However, critics question how sincere any casino or state government can be about assisting problem gamblers while also depending on such people for income.

For instance, the Institute for American Values calls for such preventive measures as prohibition of gambling advertising; reducing the speed at which slot machines can be played; removing ATMs and credit facilities from casinos; prohibiting free alcohol on casino floors; and displaying clocks on machines. But the institute points out that few if any states have enacted such policies, and asserts that public resources for problem gamblers are severely underfunded.

Whether gambling is heavy or casual, the institute emphasizes that odds always favor the house, creating the likelihood that the longer someone gambles, the more likely that person will lose money.

On the one hand, Father Fennessy — who said he’s heard reasonable arguments both for and against the casino in Tyre — noted that many such losses can be considered a fair price for entertainment. "For most it’s a form of recreation — have a fun day and move on," he said.

However, referring to problem gamblers, Father Fennessy added that "there are those who don’t use it as recreation."

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