ROCHESTER — Local religious leaders came together at a press conference July 15 to express their concerns about a proposed Native American gambling casino to be located in downtown Rochester.
As part of a land-claim deal, the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma has been negotiating with Gov. George Pataki about the possibility of opening a casino downtown. Supporters of the proposed casino claim it would revitalize the city, adding jobs and bringing in revenue. Detractors, meanwhile, maintain the casino would result in increased crime and problem gambling.
Among the religious leaders present at the press conference — held at the Dugan Center of Rochester’s St. Mary’s Church — were: the Rev. Richard Myers, pastor of Rochester’s Immanuel Baptist Church and president of the Greater Rochester Community of Churches; Father Brian Cool, director of the Newman Community at the University of Rochester and chairperson of the Diocese of Rochester’s Public Policy Committee; Dr. Muhammad Shafiq, imam and executive director of the Islamic Center of Rochester; the Rev. Alan Newton, executive minister of the Rochester/Genesee Region American Baptist Churches; and Rabbi Alan J. Katz of Temple Sinai.
The leaders stated their concerns about the social ills that a downtown casino might bring to the Rochester area. Father Cool cited a recent report by the Center for Governmental Research that estimated that the number of problem gamblers in the area would rise to 27,200 with the opening of a downtown casino, a number that “will fill both the Blue Cross Arena and Frontier Field on an annual basis.”
“We already have far too many people in our community whose basic needs are not being met. How will our society respond to a new social ill? Who in our community will win and who will lose? Our society will be judged by the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. … Our community cannot, should not and must not sit back and allow this type of gaming to be introduced to our community,” Father Cool said.
Imam Shafiq said that the Koran makes it very clear that gambling is prohibited. It is an evil, and one that will result in more violence in Rochester, which is already working hard to decrease the violence in the city, he said.
“It is based on greed, to make easy money. Easy money is a very dangerous thing. It doesn’t solve problems but brings more issues and human concerns,” Imam Shafiq said, comparing gambling to another easy, dangerous way of making money — selling heroin.
Gambling is based on the concept that a few will win and many will lose, he added, and there must be better ways to develop the city.
The Rev. Newton wholeheartedly agreed. While he was living in Milwaukee, Wis., several years ago, he said a casino opened near the city. It’s opening did not revitalize the community, he noted, and instead measurable increases in crime and bankruptcy resulted. Although the Milwaukee casino was not actually downtown, the Rev. Newton maintained that when the availability of gambling is increased, the social costs are increased as well.
“The ways that we can help are by providing jobs, security and opportunity without taking advantage of those who would lose in a gambling society. The initial benefit will be (for) those who build it and perhaps some of the people that run it, but it will not benefit Rochester,” Rabbi Katz said.
Attention should be turned away from the proposed casino, he added, and instead the intellectual and artistic powers of the community should come together to invent something exciting and unique to revitalize Rochester.
Father Cool noted that many parishes, schools and community organizations have relied on revenue from bingo games, but said the number of organizations depending on this revenue has been steadily decreasing in recent years, and that “the Catholic church does not teach that games of chance are always an evil.”
Video lottery terminals at racetracks, alcohol and smoking are also concerns of the religious community, Father Cool noted, but they are already legal. He said the religious leaders are speaking out about the proposed casino now while there is still room for discussion. Their goal is to promote open and honest public dialogue with people from all facets of the community, including people who live in the affected neighborhoods and business representatives.
“We believe the argument for opposition will win out the day when that dialogue happens,” he added.