NICHOLS, N.Y. (AP) — The first of four planned casinos opened with a flurry of balloons, confetti and uncertain visions of economic resurgence on Friday as New York ushered in a new era of state-sanctioned gambling aimed at reversing decades of upstate decline.
Big questions remain, however, as to whether the state's bet on gambling will lead to the jobs and economic activity hoped for by state and local officials.
With 944 slot machines, 33 table games and an adjacent 161-room hotel under construction, Tioga Downs Casino is the first casino to open in New York since voters authorized state-regulated gambling facilities in 2013. It will soon be joined by gambling halls in Schenectady, the Finger Lakes and the Catskills. New York's Indian tribes already operate five Vegas-style casinos.
Republican state Sen. Fred Akshar said more money is going to flow into local schools.
"We're creating jobs, hundreds of jobs," Akshar said at Friday's ribbon-cutting at Tioga Downs, located in the small town of Nichols, in the state's Southern Tier.
Thanking the casino's owner, he said, "You have planted the seed of hope."
But with dozens of similar facilities liberally sprinkled around the U.S. Northeast, casinos are no longer the economic silver bullet they once were considered. And more are coming, not just in New York: Casinos are opening in Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island and elsewhere, leading some gambling analysts to question whether the market is saturated.
"The days of really large facilities that attract from a very wide market have left us," said University of Nevada-Reno Professor Mark Nichols, who researches the economics of casinos. "They're certainly not going to bring those areas back to their former glory."
Tioga Downs has a racetrack and operated an electronic gambling hall before state regulators awarded it a license to expand into a resort casino with Las Vegas-style table games like poker and blackjack. Projections are that it will create 800 jobs and generate $32 million in annual government revenue.
Owner Jeff Gural said that it will primarily serve customers from within 50 miles and that building a larger casino wouldn't have made financial sense given the market. The state board that recommended Tioga for a casino license cited its more modest size as a benefit.
The Southern Tier is a broad swath of rolling hills nestled against Pennsylvania. IBM, military contractors and the Endicott-Johnson shoe company once employed tens of thousands of people in the area, but government contracts dried up, factories moved out and between 1980 and 2005 manufacturing jobs in Binghamton, 30 miles east of Nichols, dropped more than 55 percent.
Dozens of local residents and business owners came out to celebrate Tioga's opening Friday. Radio station owner Dave Radigan said one casino can't reverse decades of economic decline. But to an area tired of hearing bad economic news, he said, it comes down "jobs, lots and lots of jobs."
Opponents who lost the fight to stop the state's gambling expansion say casinos aren't a strategy for revitalizing struggling areas because they tend to cater to area residents who would otherwise spend money on local restaurants and entertainment options.
Stephen Shafer, chairman of the Coalition Against Gambling in New York, said gambling addiction is also a serious concern.
"Society loses in the long run," he said, "when a casino comes to town."