Schenectady County

UPDATE: Racino plan raises competition fears

With official word that the Saratoga Casino and Raceway plans to build a 24,000-square-foot event ce

With official word that the Saratoga Casino and Raceway plans to build a 24,000-square-foot event center, other local entertainment venues are wondering whether the competition for drawing talent just stiffened.

Mid-size venues such as Proctors in Schenectady and the Palace Theatre in Albany bill themselves as the Capital Region’s premiere cultural and entertainment destinations. But they manage to keep competition light and infrequent by catering to different audiences.

“We try not to compete against each other so we don’t drive the price of the talent up,” said Proctors CEO Philip Morris. “So for major Broadway-style theatrical performances in the Capital Region, we don’t really have a competitor. For concerts and comedy performances, we definitely bump into the Palace. We try to be collaborators, though. I try to avoid competing against anybody. But it happens, and it would happen more and more with this new facility in Saratoga.”

The Saratoga Casino and Raceway announced last year that it wanted to expand but that its plans depended on whether the state would pass live-table gaming legislation. On Tuesday, however, the racino confirmed it would go ahead with a $30 million capital project to build a 120-room luxury hotel, banquet and concert space, restaurant, spa and indoor pool.

Racino officials have wanted a bigger events center for several years now, but city officials quashed plans in 2007 for a 2,000-seat center and 150-room hotel. The market was already saturated, they explained.

A new feasibility study shows quite the opposite market now, with a new hotel able to generate between 20,000 and 25,000 new overnight visits a year from people who wouldn’t have stayed otherwise.

Saratoga Casino and Raceway spokeswoman Rita Cox said a market also exists for a new entertainment venue in the Capital Region.

“Absolutely,” she said. “We’re not building a concert venue that hosts tens of thousands of people, and we’re not building a convention center. Our goal is to build a multi-purpose space that can be a large-scale entertainment facility.”

The center would seat up to 2,000 or so people, she said, and would cater to casino customers. It would host concerts, conventions and meetings, social events, banquets and maybe even mixed martial arts events if the sport becomes legal, she said.

The goal from the beginning was to draw talent that was too big for the casino’s Vapor Night Club but too small for the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. That, of course, means it’s competing for talent from the likes of Proctors and the Palace, which seat up to 2,650 and 2,850 respectively.

“It’s less of a venue question than it is a product question,” said Morris. “We have Broadway. We have concerts and comedy. We do small performances in our GE Theatre, but they’re not the kind of events that people typically travel long distances for. We tried to make our film program not really competitive but filling a niche in international art, films and festivals.”

Saratoga Casino and Raceway Director James Featherstonhaugh said Tuesday that it plans to be a good neighbor by not competing with SPAC or the Saratoga Springs City Center in the types of events it hosts.

Whenever a new entertainment venue opens, Palace Theatre officials take note. They don’t get worried, though, until it starts booking concerts or comedy.

“We’ve got a really strong base in both of those areas,” said Palace Theatre Executive Director Holly Brown. “We work really hard to present a wide range of programming that is diversified. But we do a lot of classic rock concerts and a lot of stand-up comedy. So I would imagine if they’re looking at going in that direction that it would put more competition in the market for the Palace.”

Brown said the racino’s expansion plans also beg the question of just how many entertainment venues the Capital Region can support. Competition can be good, she said. But the conversation about casinos is challenging for her and others at mid-size concert halls to hear. Casinos have long meant bad news for mid-size theaters in other markets, like Hartford, Conn., and Tampa, Fla.

Unsure what exactly the new venue would mean for them, Brown and Morris have spoken on and off over the past week about the racino’s plans. The two work regularly to collaborate rather than compete, said Morris, and hope for the same from any new venues on the market.

“If this facility gets built, it’s going to want to be pretty aggressively used because it’s huge,” said Morris. “They don’t want it empty. And that will bring a fair amount of pressure on how we book. But time will tell.”

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