Robert Cheasty’s recent Daily Planet commentary correctly points out Magna’s strong desire to obtain a casino. He portrays this a negative in that it would be used to subsidize the continuation of the racetrack. But there is also a flip-side to all this: Magna’s desire for a casino can be used as leverage to convince Magna to quickly close the track and create a very large park in its place.
We need to take a long term view of Albany’s needs when planning the waterfront. Since 1995 we have voted $10 million in new property taxes and we can conservatively expect to need $10 million more through 2016 (plus another $4 million inflation adjustment on current taxes). Ten years ago these measures easily passed by 25 percent. Currently they squeak by with only a one percent margin. Consider the pressures of a slowing economy, higher mortgage rates, falling home prices, and voter burnout. These tax measures will likely begin to fail. If the money does not come from taxes it can only come from the waterfront or by cannibalizing our small town ambiance with large scale development within Albany. It would take 20 Target stores along Solano and San Pablo to generate $10 million. Even the Caruso project’s $2 million is a drop in the bucket against a $10 million tab.
Combining everyone’s wish lists, the ideal waterfront project should: free up 75 percent of the land for a large park, bring five to 10 million dollars additional income for Albany, have minimal effect on freeway traffic, not compete with Solano Avenue businesses, and create a strong incentive for Magna to close the track quickly. Environmentalists will block anything that doesn’t involve a large park and the fiscally oriented will block anything that doesn’t bring millions of additional income. The essence of a successful compromise is choosing a project not currently associated with any faction that meets enough of everyone’s needs to let us all get on with our lives. Like it or not, the only project which accomplishes all these goals is downsizing the racetrack to a casino plus a large park.
Many have strong feelings against gambling. Usually the greatest fear is the unknown: how gambling will affect a community, will our community lose or profit? In Albany’s case there isn’t much unknown. We have had waterfront gambling for 60 years. In its heyday the racetrack brought 19,000 visitors while Albany maintained one of the lowest crime rates in the area because track income allowed us to overstaff our police department. Albany’s reputation never suffered for having a racetrack. It can be argued that Albany’s unique small town ambiance is a result of waterfront gambling which removed the need to build within Albany and enabled a lower crime rate than surrounding towns.
Emotion-based public policy decisions are usually bad decisions. The similarity between Prohibition and the current anti-casino sentiment is striking. Prohibition argued that alcohol was addictive and that addictive behavior put a burden on society and family relationships, basically the same arguments for banning casinos. Prohibition failed disastrously because alcohol was widely popular, remained easy to get from criminal sources and the great majority did not become addicted. Internet gambling will remain easily available and grow rapidly no matter how hard the government tries to stamp it out. The government may even join in to get the revenue. Better these gamblers, addicted or not, should have an honest game available instead of dealing with many crooked Internet sites and return some of their spending to local communities. Gambling in California continues to grow. San Pablo and Richmond casinos are just the beginning. Like it or not, if we dig in our heels we will be surrounded by casinos in nearby towns, and left with a dilapidated racetrack, no park, and meager income. Our sacrifice will likely be in vain.
Here are some questions an objective analysis might ask: Is a more “politically correct” project that exacerbates rush hour traffic and makes many drivers arrive home angry and stressed a worse influence on families than a casino which (because of its 24-hour operation) has little effect on rush hour traffic? Does never achieving a waterfront park that benefits the whole region make a worse impact than a casino which quickly brings one about? Would sacrificing our small town ambiance along Solano be better than a casino at the waterfront? Would the additional millions in our pockets to spend in Solano Avenue stores compensate for a casino?
A casino could be configured to look much like the CESP hotel plan which was considered very attractive by many. It could be surrounded by trees and made invisible from the waterfront. It might possibly be made accessible only from the freeway, preventing direct access to and from Albany. A temporary casino to provide income during the transition could be put inside the racetrack building while constructing a permanent one.
A casino is not an end in itself but leverage to do what we really want with the other 75 percent of the property. In a complex situation like this we cannot plan successfully through wishful thinking. We need to be practical and realize that we must each sacrifice some of our preferences in order to get our most important needs met. Above all, we need flexible thinking from our politicians. So far they have all opposed the casino plus racetrack concept but nobody has had the political courage to explore the casino-as leverage concept. It might be the only practical solution.
Tony Caine is an Albany resident.
Opinions expressed in Daily Planet commentary and letters to the editor are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Daily Planet or its staff.