SARATOGA SPRINGS — An $8 million capital project will add a sports bar, VIP lounge and multiple functional or aesthetic upgrades to Saratoga Casino Hotel.
Casino managers unveiled the plans Thursday and presented them as a necessary evolution that will keep the facility competitive in an increasingly crowded gambling market.
Along with the bar and lounge, the new features include: upgraded high-limit slots area; self-service beverage stations offering free water, soft drinks and coffee; multimedia screens throughout; new carpet; upgraded lighting and audio; centralized kiosk redemption; and a reconfigured gaming floor.
The work is scheduled to be completed in the third and fourth quarters of 2019. The facility will remain open as the project progresses.
Skip Carlson, vice president of external affairs at the casino, said the operation continues to move forward against the pressures it faces.
“We view this capital improvement as an absolutely necessary step for us to remain competitive as the number one entertainment destination in the Capital District,” he said.
Saratoga Casino Hotel was New York’s first racino, a video slot machine casino added to an existing harness horse race track. After its opening in 2004, customers gambled successively larger sums of money in nine of the next 12 fiscal years, rising from $1.1 billion in 2004-2005 to $2.42 billion in 2016-2017.
Then Rivers Casino & Resort opened 18 miles away in Schenectady, in February 2017.
Total dollars gambled at Saratoga Casino Hotel dropped to $1.97 billion in 2017-2018 and $1.88 billion in 2018-2019.
Carlson said the convenience factor hurts his casino — it’s easier for customers in the Albany and Schenectady areas to drive to Rivers than to Saratoga Casino Hotel. It also hurts that Rivers has more options: table games, poker games and, soon, sports betting.
But no one else has Saratoga Springs, he said.
“One of the things that differentiates Saratoga Casino Hotel from its competitors is our location. And I never lose sight of this, and I thoroughly appreciate it,” Carlson said, thanking Discover Saratoga and the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce for being partners in promoting the city.
“I truly believe the more reasons we give people to come and visit Saratoga, the better off we are.”
(The highest monthly gambling revenue for Saratoga Casino Hotel is in August, when the city population swells for the thoroughbred racing meet at nearby Saratoga Race Course.)
General Manager Alex Tucker said Saratoga Casino and Hotel continues to lobby for the right to offer sports betting.
“Presently we’re not included but obviously we think we’re a natural,” he said. “The sports bar could easily be adapted to accommodate sports wagering and frankly, we’ve been wagering on sports here for about 80 years, in the harness racing. So we think it would just be a natural. We’re hoping to get included at some point, but right now, we’re not.”
Even without sports betting, the sports bar will be an important addition to the casino, he said, with seating for 75 people, gastropub fare and 20 beers on tap, many of them local craft products. Above it all will be 28 video screens in two 360-degree rings.
“This brings an added new level of energy and excitement to our gaming floor,” Tucker said.
Saratoga Casino Hotel’s managers have offered limited comment on its declining take since the opening of Rivers a 30-minute drive away and the much-larger MGM Springfield two hours away. But they acknowledged it Thursday. Carlson said he had feared a 40 percent drop in business but has seen a roughly 25 percent drop.
The casino has not made any layoffs, Tucker said, but neither is it making as much profit or paying as much in state taxes.
Its response has been to improve itself physically — first with the construction of its hotel in 2016, then with the addition of an outdoor gambling area, now with the $8 million capital project.
Total investment in the venue over 15 years is approaching $100 million, Tucker said.
“Sure, [Rivers] has had a financial impact, but we’ve responded,” he said. “We’ve responded by adding the additional amenities to keep us competitive — the outdoor gaming terrace, this renovation.
“We think we have the best location in the Capital Region.”