A combined casino and performing arts center at Midtown is under consideration by the city, and the local developer behind the idea is optimistic a proposal could be firmed up in the next month or two. Casino city.
"The bottom line is we'd have a casino downtown, we would have a performing arts center, and it would be at no cost to the city of Rochester," developer Robert Morgan said Thursday.
Instead, the Seneca Nation of Indians would foot the bill for the four- or five-story combined facility on the central parcel of the East Main Street site.
What exists now, as far as plans, is something along the lines of pencil sketches, Morgan said, but with detail. A 3,000-seat theater would be on the upper floors, with a casino on the first two and parking for 1,700 cars beneath. Morgan put the price tag between $70 million and $100 million. The Senecas would own and operate the performing arts center, in consultation with the city.
Mayor Lovely Warren confirmed that the city has been evaluating the idea for several months now, but downplayed any immediacy.
"It's something I am going to do a lot of research on," she said, "before I make a decision either way."
Seneca President Maurice A. John Sr. declined comment, through a spokesman.
Talk of a downtown casino has been around for at least a decade.
►2014 poll indicated city residents support casino
Mall magnate Thomas Wilmot had been working with the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma for a downtown casino at the Sibley Building in 2004, but the deal faltered.
When residents were asked their opinion of a casino in the city back in a 2011 Voice of the Voter poll, they were split with 50 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed, and the rest undecided. In 2014, as the Senecas pitch for a Henrietta casino collapsed, another Voice of the Voter poll gauged support for a casino anywhere in Monroe County, and the numbers shifted to 39 percent in favor, 52 percent opposed and 9 percent unsure.
It was about that time that rumors of something downtown began to build.
While opinions may be changing, so, too, is downtown.
Office towers immediately surrounding the lot in question are being renovated for housing and could add more than 650 units in the coming years, representing a 20 percent increase in the downtown housing stock. Morgan is involved in the residential component of Tower280, the former Midtown Tower, adjacent to the center parcel in question. He also is involved in developments in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, he said — all cities with downtown casinos.
"We need people downtown. This is a way to get people downtown," Morgan said of the Seneca proposal, adding that patrons would also visit area hotels and restaurants because the facility would have neither.
What's more, he said: "They are going to bring 500 jobs... all good paying jobs."
Warren, similarly, noted the jobs potential. She said she had spoken with the Senecas, and to Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. The Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino opened in downtown Buffalo in 2013, and recently announced plans to expand. Brown, she said, noted the 450 jobs created there, and said the city had not seen the negative social impacts often cited by critics, nor any resulting increase in poverty.
"Are these legitimate jobs that can be used to address the needs of the hardcore unemployed?" asked former Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., who helped lead the opposition in Henrietta and opposed the Wilmot casino plan a decade ago — but said he is keeping an open mind this time and waiting for the proposal.
"This is going to be a very, very interesting discussion," Johnson said. "But the mayor is looking for every opportunity she can find for job creation."
Putting a casino in Rochester could be complicated. The Senecas have exclusive gaming rights in western New York, but have maxed out its state-allotted number of full-scale casinos, including dealer tables, so that leaves video slots and gaming terminals like those at Finger Lakes Gaming & Racetrack. Those require federal approval, both for the gambling and creation of sovereign land.
The city sought development proposals a year ago for the central property on the Midtown lot, but passed on the two it received. One was for a community gathering space, the other was offered by a developer that has done housing, office and hotel projects. At the time, Warren — who has always supported a performing arts center downtown — said that whatever was built needed to complement nearby development; that the city didn't want to build something just to build it.
She said much the same on Thursday.
"It's a nice parcel of land on your Main Street," she said. "You want to build the right thing there."
Includes reporting by Albany Bureau Chief Joseph Spector.