The fight has gone pretty well, according to Proctors CEO Philip Morris. All that’s left is to win the terms of peace.
“Upstate Theaters for a Fair Game,” a coalition of entertainment venues aimed at putting restrictions on New York’s multi-purpose gaming casinos, announced at a press conference Tuesday at the Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany that plenty of progress has been made in that endeavor. The group says it’s not anti-gambling or anti-casino, but instead is concerned over the inherent financial advantage casinos have when attracting entertainers to their venues.
“We want a limit on the size of the facility, we want limitations on exclusivity, and we want these gaming companies to form partnership agreements with the local performing arts groups in their area,” Morris said. “We shared these concerns with the governor’s office and the gaming office and they wholeheartedly agree. The gaming commissioner has said they will do nothing to harm the quality and strength of the entertainment facilities already in upstate New York.”
Earlier this year, the dialogue was somewhat different.
“When this process started six months ago, their first response was, ‘This is the free enterprise system. You guys compete with each other, why can’t you compete with casinos?’ ” Morris said. “We are competitive but we want to sell more seats, all together, and we don’t want to be dark. It wasn’t about money or being paid to be dark. We need to be open for our community, and I think suddenly the light went off. They got it, and since then there hasn’t been any resistance.”
The group would like to see the capacity of entertainment-based venues at casinos limited to 1,000, and is also hoping for a lessening of the exclusivity contracts, which typically restrict a second venue from hosting the same act within a 100-mile radius and a period of time, usually lasting 100 days.
Tuesday’s press conference comes two weeks before Election Day, when New York’s citizens will vote on a casino gambling referendum that would authorize casino expansion in the state. Regardless of that outcome, Morris and his group are asking that language be added to the New York Casino Gambling Amendment that would establish long-term limits on expansion of those facilities.
“We’ve been talking about this for six months, and the problem we expressed is resolved,” said Morris. “We feel that is important information for any voter, and people should vote the way they feel. But we’re not saying, ‘Our problem is done, victory.’ What is important is that our problem is understood and the process is committed to solving it.”
A press release issued by the New York State Gaming Commission and Acting Executive Director Robert Williams confirmed Morris’ understanding on the situation.
“We are in full agreement with the Upstate Theatre Coalition regarding the importance of our live entertainment venues,” said Williams. “A major goal of the Upstate New York Gaming and Economic Development Act is to enhance and grow New York’s tourism attractions, including the state’s performing arts venues and arenas. That’s why the siting criteria in the act declares that prospective casinos should establish fair and reasonable partnerships with live entertainment venues in the local market.”
The release went on to say that the commission believes “any new gaming resorts must and will provide a major boost for our existing and historic live entertainment venues.”
Also at the podium Tuesday was Saratoga Performing Arts Center President and Executive Director Marcia White, who cited reports that casinos in Connecticut had a significant negative impact on existing arts and entertainment venues throughout that state as well as Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“Our goal is to protect our arts and entertainment venues and the economic and cultural benefits they bring to the community,” White said. “We’ve seen the harm inflicted on neighboring states by casinos, and that is a lesson we have to learn from and a lesson we can’t ignore. Casinos are able to offer discount tickets and special packages to attract an audience that we can’t. In the very best of circumstances it’s difficult keeping a not-for-profit group strong and viable, and arts groups in Hartford and Providence have had to close because of the impact of casinos. That’s why everyone who’s a part of this coalition is here today.”
Theaters and performance venues from the Hudson and Mohawk valleys were in attendance Tuesday, along with a representative from the State Theatre in Ithaca. While White talked about the negative impact casinos caused in New England states to the east of the Capital Region, Morris looked westward to Turning Stone Casino in Oneida and its effect on the downtown area of Utica.
“Turning Stone, which has a modest facility, has largely turned the Stanley Theater in Utica into a place with five, three-night Broadway shows and that’s all,” said Morris. “So, after the city makes a $20 million commitment to expansion, the facility is now basically empty. From my own point of view, there are events I can’t bring to Proctors because Turning Stone gets them and puts exclusivity on them.”
According to Mark Baker, president of the Saratoga Springs City Center, multi-purpose venues at casinos will have a horrible impact on downtowns throughout the Capital Region.
“A complete gaming center with live entertainment and no restrictions, underwritten by the revenues they receive, would be devastating,” Baker said. “The casino is not a generator of other activity within the community. I can tell you the number of people who visit the casino here and then transition to downtown is zero. It’s just not happening.”