Give people only what they want
I’m starting to think getting voters to approve Las Vegas-style casino gambling was the easy part of what is going to be a long, contentious process.
The hard part? Finding a place for the casino.
There are plenty of places it could go, of course. But there are also a lot of people who don’t want a casino anywhere near them.
In Saratoga Springs, long regarded as the community most likely to land a casino, a vocal, grassroots opposition group has emerged. And the city’s new mayor, Joanne Yepsen, has expressed reservations about a full-fledged casino.
Last week, when a company called Capital Gaming signed a contract to buy the First Prize Center, a dilapidated former meat-processing plant on the Albany-Colonie border, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan and Colonie town Supervisor Paula Mahan both voiced concerns.
“Personally, I don’t think that’s the right location for it,” Mahan said. “It’s right smack in the middle of a neighborhood.”
The lack of support for casino gambling from local officials should come as no surprise: In November, 57 percent of Saratoga Springs residents voted against legalizing live-table gambling in New York, as did 54 percent of county residents. Voters in Albany and Schenectady counties also shot down the proposal, which garnered 57 percent of the vote statewide.
I voted against legalizing live-table gaming, and I would happily do it again, but my feelings about casinos were rendered moot in the election last fall, and I’ve since become interested in the battle over where the Capital Region casino will go.
New York’s casino siting process is controlled by the state and seems designed to minimize the concerns of everyday people. This is notably different from the process in Massachusetts, where a casino law signed in 2011 was designed to ensure casinos were only built in communities that wanted them.
According to a Boston Globe article from November, “Just 5 of 11 original Massachusetts casino or slot parlor applicants have unambiguously won support for their projects at the polls, but each of those winning votes has been a near-landslide or better.”
One of the legislators involved in crafting the Bay State’s casino legislation, state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, said the law was working as intended.
“It was intended to build a competitive, robust gaming market ensuring all the while the licenses would be given to reputable, capable firms that can produce what they are promising,” Rosenberg said, “and at the same time giving local control over the decision as to whether it would be built in your community. ... It’s playing out as expected, for the most part.”
Cuomo could have followed Massachusetts’ lead and created a process that took the wishes of local communities into consideration. But he didn’t. If he had, the most obvious and logical site for a Capital Region casino would be Rensselaer County, where voters, the county legislature and the Rensselaer Common Council have all voiced support for the idea.
And if Rensselaer County wants a casino, well, who am I to say they can’t have one? With so many people lining up to support a casino, perhaps Rensselaer County is the best place for one. But given the powerful interests that want a casino in Saratoga Springs, I’d be surprised if the casino ended up anywhere else.
Last week I spoke with Colin Klepetar, the leader of Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion, or SAVE Saratoga, the group formed to oppose casino gambling in Saratoga Springs. I asked him whether he believed he and his allies could prevail against Destination Saratoga, the group formed to counter SAVE Saratoga’s anti-casino message. Destination Saratoga has financial support from the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, and members include former county Republican chairman Jasper Nolan.
“I’m optimistic,” Klepetar said. “A solid majority of people [in Saratoga Springs] voted against the casino. We see [SAVE] as an organic movement that’s bringing the community together.”
The casino legislation “was written to take the voice of the community away,” he said. “It’s people in Albany trying to make decisions for us. We voted no, and we’re hoping our elected officials listen to us.”
I am not an optimist, but I admire Klepetar’s positive attitude. Like Klepetar, I’d like to think the wishes of the majority matter.
But I have my doubts.
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