To uproarious cheers from casino opponents, the City Council registered its opposition to the state siting a live table game facility in Saratoga Springs — at least for the time being.
The council adopted a wordy three-page resolution opposing “the Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act as it relates to a destination resort casino being placed in the city of Saratoga Springs.”
The vote took place amid supporters and opponents of casinos gathered at the city’s Music Hall Tuesday evening. The resolution approved unanimously by the council’s four Democrats and one Republican revokes a 2012 resolution supporting casino gaming in the city and lists six points highlighting how the law allowing live table gambling offers few protections for the institutions that have kept the city vibrant.
The resolution, however, does allow the council to revisit the issue as more information comes available. In specific, the measure indicates the council “will continue to monitor and evaluate” the issue by reviewing the forthcoming request for applications due this month from the state Gaming Commission and “working with a collective voice” toward finding a solution in the best interest of the city.
Calling the casino siting process “the issue of the decade” for the city, Mayor Joanne Yepsen said the council advanced the measure in response to the increasing number of questions about the impact of casino gambling in the city with no clear-cut answers. Operators of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway intend to apply for a casino license from the gaming commission, but have not yet outlined the details of what they have in mind.
“After months of doing due diligence it’s time to act,” she said. “We must move forward.”
Yepsen said she brought down “stacks” of correspondences and views to the commission during a meeting Tuesday. She said the commission also told her the application to be released will closely mirror the law approved by voters, meaning any real detail will come in the proposal from the casino operators.
“We’re basing this on what we know,” she said. “For right now, this is a ‘no’ because this is all we have to go on.”
The adopted resolution calls into question the potential impact of a Las Vegas-style casino on the city’s “exclusive convention center” and whether it could adversely affect the “diverse package of cultural and economic assets” offered downtown. The Saratoga Casino and Raceway, also known as the racino, is planning a $30 million expansion — including a 120-room hotel and 24,000-square-foot multipurpose event center — that is not subject to review by the city’s land-use boards.
The resolution also says the state’s gaming act doesn’t conform with the city’s comprehensive plan or provide for home rule — the legislative authority granted to local governments. In addition, the resolution raises the issue of whether the city would be granted any ability to weigh in on the potential transfer of a casino license or future expansion of the operation.
The resolution cites that the horse racing industry in the city, including the businesses that support harness racing, could be adversely affected by casino development in the city. And it takes issue with projected revenues provided by the state — namely that nothing is being guaranteed to the city.
State officials have estimated the host county and community will split $11.4 million annually from table gaming. City leaders, however, have grown skeptical of funding from gambling ever since the state abruptly cut impact aid Saratoga Springs was receiving from the racino’s video lottery terminal revenue in 2008, causing a large budgetary shortfall.
Republican Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco initially offered a much stronger resolution offering “vigorous opposition” to a casino siting in the city, regardless of the application process. The resolution, authored by Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion, was pulled from the agenda after Yepsen’s measure was adopted.
“I want Albany to get the message loud and clear — Saratoga says ‘no,’ ” said Scirocco after offering a second to Yepsen’s resolution.
Yepsen’s resolution seemed to please both opponents and proponents of locating a casino in the city. Opponents said the council’s resolution at last gives a clear message that a majority of voters in the city sent during the election in November: They’re against live table gaming in Saratoga Springs.
“We hope that the gaming commission, the siting board and the governor have finally realized that our community does not support siting a casino here and we hope that they will respect our collective voice,” said Colin Klepetar of SAVE Saratoga. “The full support of the City Council rejecting a casino shows clear vision for the future of Saratoga Springs and it recognizes the fact that continuing our economic successes, preserving our quality of life and moving forward in a positive way that focuses on maintaining a strong downtown does not align with the goals of a casino.”
Proponents of siting a casino in the city claim the resolution states exactly what they’ve been calling for throughout the debate. Morgan Hook, a spokesman for Destination Saratoga, interpreted the resolution as the council reserving judgment on expanded gaming at the racino until the state’s request for applications is released and the details of the casino’s proposal are finalized.
“Any action before that time would be based on speculation and conjecture, and would be contrary to the best interests of Saratogians,” he said.
James Featherstonhaugh, a minority owner of the racino, also didn’t view the resolution as a setback. Rather he viewed the measure as one that indicates the City Council will wait for the commission to release the application and then consider the racino’s proposal.
“The City Council has recognized there’s nothing before it to recognize or weigh,” he said. “That will only happen after the [request for applications] have come out and we have had a chance to review it and make a response.”
Featherstonhaugh said the racino is cognizant of the concerns and looks forward to addressing many of them.
“We have for several months now been listening carefully to what the public has said and we look forward to putting forward a response that addresses most of their concerns,” he said.
The vote on the resolution came after nearly two hours of public comments, both in support and against casino gaming. Some, including a number of racino workers, said the resolution sends the wrong message before the state has even released applications for gaming licenses. Others said the council needs to send a strong message to the state that a casino isn’t welcome in Saratoga Springs.
“The vast majority of the people we talk to are opposed to the expansion of gambling,” said Robert Wright, a city resident wearing a red shirt with the white word ‘casiNO’ on the back.
Saratoga resident Sandra Gehring questioned SAVE Saratoga’s notion that a casino doesn’t have support. She said the vote in November shouldn’t be taken as being representative of the true support for a casino in the city.
“The city of Saratoga Springs has not spoken,” she said. “I love my hometown, but also feel a casino should go forward.”
Officials with the gaming commission declined to comment on the city’s resolution. The measure came as members of the state Senate unanimously confirmed the appointment of Mark Gearan as chairman of the gaming commission, which will formally appoint the gaming facility locations board.