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Aqueduct revenue boost spurs casino debate

Guests play slot machines at the new Resorts

Guests play slot machines at the new Resorts World Casino-New York at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens. The casino will permanently employ 1350 people of which are mostly women and minorities.( October 28, 2011) Photo by Jason Andrew Credit: Jason Andrew

The day before her 63rd birthday, Carol Clark-Iacovelli of Mineola was having a ball playing the slots with two girlfriends at Aqueduct Racetrack's "racino."

"I hit the jackpot," she said, smiling, of $128.50 in winnings, as she and her friends paused to have lunch. "I really like it here."

Her friend Maria DeGrottole, 53, of Levittown, said the three were on a "ladies' afternoon out" at what officially is called Resorts World Casino New York City, taking advantage of games of chance that are closer to home than Atlantic City.

The Queens racino, which is the term for a combined racetrack and casino, quickly moved to the top of some revenue charts after it opened in mid-October. In May, it netted more slot-machine revenue -- $57.5 million -- than any other casino in the United States, surpassing Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and individual casinos in Atlantic City and on the Las Vegas Strip, according to the Genting Group, its Malaysia-based operator. The racino's slot machine revenue of $59.75 million in July was just a bit behind Mohegan Sun's $59.97 million, spokesman Stefan Friedman said.

And the state has gotten a new revenue source. Through July 31, the racino pumped more than $212 million into the New York State Education Fund -- 44 percent of its "net win," according to the state Lottery Department's website.


Potential casino destination

Those numbers bolster supporters' case for expansion of gambling venues on Long Island and at other sites in the state. The Island is seen as a potential casino destination now that the Shinnecock Indian Nation has federal recognition and with it the ability to operate a casino.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed changing the state constitution to allow full-fledged casino gambling, with Las Vegas-style table games that currently are prohibited at the racinos and other non-Indian venues.

This year, the legislature approved a plan to allow up to seven non-Indian-run casinos in the state. The constitution change requires the approval of two successive legislatures followed by statewide voter approval, which probably could occur no earlier than fall 2013.

The lines in the national debate over gambling have long been drawn and a casino on Long Island could bring benefits or costs -- along with the challenge of possibly having too many gambling venues in the era when discretionary income is limited.

Supporters look to the potential of jump-starting a local economy, increasing revenue for governments and creating jobs. But some experts point to the likelihood of attendant social costs -- more problem gamblers, bankruptcy, unemployment and family crises, and increased crime.


Pros and cons

"No question about it, gambling has its downside, as does alcohol or any other type of issue like that," said Suffolk Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), the legislature's deputy presiding officer and chair of its Economic Development Committee, which established that county's Gaming Task Force. "On the positive side, we're talking literally thousands of jobs . . . between the building of the casino and the people working at the casino."

At Aqueduct, the sheer number of slots places it in the top 10 of casinos nationwide, according to the Casino City Press, a Massachusetts trade publication on gaming. The casino has 4,525 video lottery terminals, as the slot machines are called, and 475 electronic gaming tables.Spokeswoman Andrea Mullaney said the publication doesn't include electronic gaming tables in the totals or compile slot-machine revenue information at individual casinos.

Daily, thousands play the slots. Friedman said the Aqueduct facility attracts an average of 47,000 people on Saturdays, 35,000 on Fridays and Sundays, and 20,000 daily from Monday through Thursday.

Mary R., a married mother of five and a spokeswoman for the Long Island Gamblers Anonymous group, offered a perspective of the new racino that illustrates the risks of gambling. The Island resident said her former online gambling addiction led to personal bankruptcy. Though she hasn't gambled in nine years, Aqueduct gives her qualms.

"Oh, I'm tempted, because I know it's there," said Mary, who would not give her full name, citing Gamblers Anonymous rules. "I wonder what it looks like. I wonder if I can go in and take a look at it." She doesn't dare, fearing the personal costs.

For cash-strapped governments, the lure of casino revenue is a powerful draw.

Casinos mean jobs, and at Aqueduct that is more than 1,800 people. The Seneca Nation's casino in Niagara Falls employs about 2,500, Mayor Paul Dyster said.

"It's been a major benefit to the city to have casino revenues," he said. "We used to be called 'pothole city.' We've been able to catch up on road paving using casino revenues and to help leverage other government funds for economic development projects." He said officials had budgeted $17 million to $18 million annually in casino revenue.

But Dyster noted a significant drawback. Niagara Falls' share of slot-machine revenue from the casino dried up in 2010, victim of a dispute between the tribe and the state. The city estimates it is due $60 million in slot-machine revenue, he said.

A tribe official accused the state of violating the compact giving the tribe "exclusive" rights to operate casinos in a 16-county area of western New York. Until the Seneca Nation began holding back revenue, it distributed $475.2 million to the state, a portion of which goes to municipalities in which the tribe's casinos are located, the official said.

His lament: "We wish that the mechanism was direct payment from the Seneca Nation of Indians."

William Johnson, a former mayor of Rochester who now is a professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said, "I think it remains to be seen whether or not these revenue streams that are being predicted are going to materialize. Twenty years ago, it was either Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Now, you can almost go around the corner to find a casino." Even though there are more casinos, he said, "there's still the same number of people gambling."


Money and jobs

David Just, an economics professor at Cornell University, said casino saturation is a danger. While they can create jobs and bring in money, "if you get to a point where there are more casinos than people really want in the area, then you stop adding those jobs and you stop bringing in that money."

Many at the Aqueduct racino cited its convenient location, a point made in Resorts World's advertising that touts it as being "minutes not hours away."

Frank Fahrenkopf, president and chief executive of the American Gaming Association, said in an interview that while gaming expanded incredibly across the United States in the 1990s and 2000s, the percentage of "pathological gamblers" in the population has stayed virtually the same, just over 1 percent, since studies in the 1970s. He said members of the gaming association are committed to promoting responsible gaming, and some states, including New York, require it.

"We have a code of conduct for our members," Fahrenkopf said. "Not only are we concerned about the 1 percent who can't gamble responsibly, we're also concerned about underage gaming." He said member casinos fund hotlines for agencies that assist gamblers and work with treatment providers and researchers.

Gamblers Anonymous groups on Long Island and in Queens say anecdotal information suggests Aqueduct's racino is having an impact on gambling addicts. The group doesn't take a public stand for or against casinos.


Calls to helpline up

Chuck R., a spokesman for the New York Gamblers Anonymous group, said though it doesn't keep statistics on callers, hotline volunteers are "starting to hear people calling our hotline that have said their gambling problem is exacerbated by the racino."

Mary, the Long Island Gamblers Anonymous group spokeswoman, agreed. "I have seen an increase in calls coming after Aqueduct opened last fall," she said.

However, data from the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services' addictions helpline show a drop in calls between 2010 and 2011: 4,378 in 2010 to 2,778 in 2011. There is no breakdown of the type of calls, -- whether for alcoholism, drugs or gambling -- and officials had no explanation for the decline, agency spokeswoman Jannette Rondo said.

As talk about casinos ramps up on Long Island, Mary R. acknowledged her unease. Before she stopped nine years ago, gambling took a big toll on her life.

"I wasn't paying my bills. I was lying. I just wasn't present in anything," she said. "Say, one of my kids was playing baseball. I could be there on the field, but I was thinking, planning and scheming to place a bet."

She came close to losing her home, but was able to refinance the mortgage. "Every time I make that payment," she said, she thinks about how gambling has affected her life.Now, when she hears Long Island officials talking about bringing a casino here, Mary said, "I'm fearful about it. I don't want it in my backyard."

John Welte, senior research scientist at the Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, said a national random study in which he participated has found "people who lived within 10 miles of a casino had twice the chance of being a problem gambler than the average person." He added: "I'm not saying there's no positive results from expanded gambling. What I am stressing is you've got to expect some negative effects."

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