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Speculation about a casino in Rochester generates concerns among some local lawmakers

A skyline view of Rochester
Max Schulte
Downtown Rochester skyline view.

Some local lawmakers are raising concerns about a proposed new gaming compact for the Seneca Nation.

It is related to speculation about a push for a potential casino in the city of Rochester.

As state lawmakers wrapped up most of their work for the current legislative session over the weekend, one of the pieces of unfinished business has to do with a bill that would allow the governor’s office to negotiate a new gaming compact with the Senecas.

That pact could add another license allowing for a full casino to be placed in Rochester. But this process is happening out of order, it would seem. The framework of an agreement is in place but not being released. Lawmakers are only just now voting to authorize the executive branch to negotiate the deal. And Rochester-area leaders have been left without notice or involvement, thus far.

"A matter as significant as the placement of a casino in Rochester should be discussed out in the open, in conversations that include members of our state delegation and local officials," Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said in a statement released Monday afternoon. "It’s deeply troubling that this community has now been placed in this position of debating an issue without knowing the full details of what has been negotiated."

Mayor Malik Evans reacted with similar frustration earlier in the day, noting the lack of communication with City Hall or the state delegation. Every member of City Council signed onto a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, demanding a halt to further discussion involving a casino in the city.

"Any conversation of this magnitude that does not include local stakeholders is unacceptable," Evans said in a statement. "There are already numerous casinos in the Rochester area. My focus remains on meaningful opportunities that create a vibrant Rochester economy focused on the jobs of the 21st century."

The state Senate approved moving forward, but local Democratic member Jeremy Cooney was the only “no” vote.

He said he just doesn’t have enough details yet.

“We've had this conversation as a community over the last several years,” Cooney said, “and I just didn't feel comfortable moving forward or authorizing any sort of agreement without speaking directly with the communities that I represent, or giving them an opportunity to have public input.”

Cooney said while he has his feelings about gaming and gambling, it’s not a decision he can make alone.

“I certainly want to involve the community itself as well as our partners in local government,” he said.

The Seneca Nation has long eyed Rochester for a gaming operation. And there are reports in media that include the Rochester Business Journal and Politico that the Senecas may be doing so again. What's unclear is whether any specific site is being discussed.

Asked about the imbroglio on Monday, Hochul said: "I have not been able to be involved in negotiations because I'm recused from that. My team is very involved, and I know they're waiting for support from the Legislature in time to get this completed. The Assembly will have to take some action because the Senate has acted but the Assembly hasn't, so anything else is premature at this time."

Assemblymember Harry Bronson, a Rochester-area Democrat, is not a fan of gambling as an economic driver.

“I think putting a casino in downtown Rochester should be a nonstarter,” Bronson said. “Usually casinos are billed as economic development, and certainly having jobs is a positive aspect, but there’s much better economic development programs that we should be using for residents of the city of Rochester.”

Bronson added: “We certainly want the state to enter into compacts with tribal nations, in this case, the Senecas, but that being said, we want to make sure those compacts are fair for our residents.”

Last week, the Seneca Nation announced‘an agreement in principle’ over a new 20-year casino gaming compact, but its statement did not detail plans for gaming in Rochester. The State Assembly is expected to consider the bill about the gaming compact later this month.

“I would probably pump the brakes on the hysteria and wait for facts to come out,” said Robert Duffy, president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.

The former Rochester mayor and one-time state lieutenant governor has been in these sorts of talks before. Like other local leaders, he said he has heard nothing official nor had any discussion about a casino or any other gaming facility. And that seems odd. Though a sovereign nation, the Senecas have been a good neighbors, he said, meeting with local leadership and being methodical about their options.

“Making a decision about putting a casino in any city, county or town, without having at least some form of tacit approval or sense of support from the leadership would not be a good thing,” Duffy said. “And listening to everybody’s comments, I would sense that hasn't happened.”

Duffy said there needs to be an updated compact, as the state and the nation have been at odds for several years.

“It’s just how things operate. It’s a process,” Duffy said. “But I would find it highly unlikely that there is an agreement on a location in the city or county.”

On Sunday, Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart said she would submit a “memorializing resolution” calling on Hochul and the State Legislature to oppose allowing a casino in Monroe County as part of a new gaming compact with the Seneca Nation.

Barnhart’s resolution states that “casinos do not create new wealth, employment or tourism,” and she said at the very least, there should be an independent study of a casino’s potential effects on Rochester and Monroe County.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.
Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.