Though polls have shown a majority of New Yorkers support the referendum to expand table gambling in the state, few attending a forum in the city most likely to get a full casino seemed to be among them.
Comments posed to a panel of speakers that included the Spa City’s two representatives on the county Board of Supervisors and a major stakeholder in the Saratoga Casino and Raceway focused on what negative affects table games could bring. Audience members also questioned whether the local community would have any say in bringing a full-scale casino to Saratoga Springs or if November’s referendum would essentially decide the issue for them.
“Personally, I feel like we’re about to kill the golden goose here,” commented Saratoga Springs resident Linda Whittle.
James Featherstonhaugh, the racino’s director and the president of the New York Gaming Association, downplayed the potential impact of expanding gaming in New York. He said the casino envisioned for Saratoga Springs wouldn’t be on the scale of the ones in Las Vegas and would have hardly any negative impact on the city at all.
“The only negative impacts are those that come with any other major business expansion,” he told the crowd of about 50 people gathered at Saratoga Arts.
Featherstonhaugh said a new casino would also bring roughly 600 jobs to the area, essentially doubling the size of the workforce now employed at the racino. He said about 80 percent of visitors would come to play the electronic slot machines — also called video lottery terminals — and the table games would “bring a degree of sophistication” to the gambling operation.
Opponents on the panel disagreed. They lamented the lack of hearings or publically disseminated information on the pros and cons of the issue.
“We have general information that says there’s a whole ring of problems associated with this,” said Robb Smith, the executive director of Interfaith Impact of New York State, an organization that has opposed the ballot initiative.
Colin Klepetar, a math teacher who organized more than 200 Facebook users to join his site, Saratogians Against More Casino Gambling in Our Town, asked how an expanded racino operation would affect downtown. He fears the new operation could throw off the balance that has kept the businesses along Broadway vibrant.
“If we bring in a new casino, it may tip the scales,” he said.
Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus said not bringing casino gambling to the city could prove just as disastrous. He said VLT operations slated for downstate could ultimately harm thoroughbred and harness racing in the city.
Shimkus also noted the racino hasn’t brought the negative impacts opponents argued it would bring. Instead, he said the facility has given the Spa City another amenity it can offer visitors.
“We’ve had [a casino] for 10 years and it hasn’t negatively impacted Broadway,” he said.
Nor have city police seen a spike in crime resulting from the racino, said City Police Chief Greg Veitch, who spoke on the panel. Veitch said the racino has generated 309 calls to police so far this year, which is more than the 132 calls from the Saratoga Race Course, but only a fraction of the roughly 4,500 from downtown.
“I think these numbers speak for themselves,” he said.
But Veitch was also quick to note the unpredictable nature of allowing table gambling in the city. He said there’s no way of knowing exactly what a full-fledged casino would bring in the way of emergency calls.
“I don’t think it’s anything that anyone can predict with any degree of accuracy,” he said.
Satatoga Springs’ supervisors didn’t expressly speak in favor of or against the referendum. Joanne Yepsen, the Democratic candidate for city mayor, did acknowledge her concern that the aid promised to Saratoga Springs by the state — a split of $11.4 million with the county — could fall prey to the same budgetary ax that greatly diminished the impact aid promised when the racino was created in 2004.
Matt Veitch, the city’s Republican supervisor, took a pragmatic approach. He said if the ballot initiative is approved, he will support bringing a casino to the county.
“If it’s going to come, we want it to come here,” he said.
The hour-and-a-half long forum sponsored by the Saratoga Wire followed a poll by the Siena Research Institute two weeks ago, which found New Yorkers were almost evenly split on the issue of legalizing table gambling. That same poll, however, found about 54 percent support the referendum as it will be worded on the ballot next fall.
“There we saw a majority of support,” said Donald Levy, the institute’s director.