Operators of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway often relied on a refrain of uncertainty when questioned by concerned business owners and community members about their application for one of the state’s four licenses for live table games.
Rita Cox, the racino’s senior vice president of marketing, and George “Skip” Carlson, vice president of external affairs, took turns acknowledging the uncertainty of the details they’d include in their forthcoming proposal when they spoke before a crowd of roughly 1,000 people at the Saratoga Springs City Center fact-finding forum Monday.
Many of those details, they said, likely would be determined when a five-member board appointed by the state Gaming Commission releases a request for applications this winter.
“Until we know the specifics of what the siting commission is going to want to see in our applications and our bids … we don’t have the exact plans. We don’t have those details ironed out.”
Likewise, panelist Robert McLaughlin, the former chief executive officer, director and general counsel at the New York State Lottery, said the racino could only answer questions based on what the application might look like in accordance with the general, somewhat vague parameters included in the gaming legislation approved by voters in November. He said specifics could change dramatically.
“We’re kind of speaking in a vacuum right now,” Carlson said. “Everything 40 days from now could be totally different.”
Carlson highlighted the millions of dollars the racino has already pumped into the Saratoga Springs economy and how it helped increase harness racing purses. He said the racino has contributed $2 million to local nonprofits since opening in 2004, and it logged 2.1 million visits last year alone.
“Couple people on the panel are talking about casinos when we get a casino if we get a casino. Well, we already have a casino.”
The racino operators did make several assurances to the panel that included several of the city’s prominent restaurateurs, hoteliers and horsemen. Among them, they said plans for a full-scale casino would reflect a partnership with the city that would be aimed at keeping downtown Saratoga Springs a vibrant place.
“There’s a lot of competition for discretionary dollars in the Northeast. What makes our facility work and what’s going to help us attract new customers to our facility is our location,” Cox said. “It’s in our best interest in the long term that we’re drawing customers to a community that has so much to offer.”
Cox said the casino would offer a concierge service that would book reservations at downtown businesses and would expand on a new program to provide its guests with vouchers to spend at off-site local businesses. And Carlson said the casino would have no reason to offer free alcohol to its customers, since it will have no competition in the region.
But their words didn’t seem to allay many fears. Harvey Fox, owner of N. Fox Jewelers on Broadway, said the casino model is to usurp business and keep customers close to the games.
“A casino model attempts to keep the consumer on their property,” he said. “A typical host community does not flourish like Saratoga Springs.”
John Baker, owner of Gaffney’s Restaurant on Caroline Street, echoed those concerns. He questioned whether a casino outside the city’s downtown might disrupt its success.
“Our downtown is the gem of New York state,” he said. “And as strong as we are, downtowns are also very fragile.”
City Center Authority Mark Baker expressed concerns about a 24,000-square-foot event center proposed as part of the racino’s planned $30 million expansion — something that is going forward regardless of whether it secures a casino license. He fears the new center could directly compete with the authority, possible diminishing its business by roughly a third.
“We have a gem and it’s something we should all protect,” he said.
Joe McMahon, one of the founders and managing partners of McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, spoke of the city’s history of casino gambling and noted that there was always a strong partnership between the tracks and the casinos. For instance, he said, the casinos weren’t permitted to open when the tracks were running.
McMahon said legalized gambling in Atlantic City led to its track being shuttered.
The forum was attended by both supporters and opponents of a casino coming to the city. Opponents wore bright red shirts with white lettering spelling “casiNO” on the back. Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion passed out 300 of the shirts prior to the forum.
Colin Klepetar, one of the group’s organizers, said the racino’s assurances seemed hollow. He said they seemed to be trying to appease residents, and questioned whether any of the promises were genuine.
“They’re making a lot of promises, but none of them are binding,” he said.
Casino proponents also turned out in force. Destination Saratoga, a group of business owners and community leaders, bused roughly 450 people to the event.