Charlie Hoffman has seen how drastically the fortunes of his employer can change with tweaks to the state’s gaming laws.
The 90-year-old pari-mutuel clerk first started working at Saratoga Raceway in 1946 and watched as the harness track grew into a popular city destination through the 1970s. But when state legislators approved simulcasting at off-track betting parlors, Hoffman witnessed firsthand the precipitous decline suffered by the raceway until 2004, when the first video lottery terminals came online.
“I’ve seen the good times, the bad times and the good times again,” he said Tuesday.
Hoffman sees the harness track — now called the Saratoga Casino and Raceway — at another crossroads today as state officials decide where to site four live-table gaming facilities. And if the one casino destined for the Capital Region lands somewhere other than the racino, he fears his employer will enter another dark era.
“I think it’d be disastrous, really,” he said.
Hoffman and about a dozen others from among the racino’s 630-person workforce are now appealing to the community to support bringing live table games to the sprawling facility off Jefferson Street. Those speaking Tuesday at a news conference organized by Destination Saratoga — an advocacy group financed by the racino — at the Saratoga Springs Recreation Center said the expansion of gaming at the racino will bring hundreds of good-paying jobs and not the hardship suggested by opponents of placing a casino in the city.
“For 10 years, they’ve given me more opportunity to advance than anyone else,” said Kathleen Anderson, the racino’s director of entertainment and a single mother of two daughters.
Anderson spoke of how the racino has offered good benefits, a retirement plan and annual raises that have allowed her to put her daughters through private college. She said opponents aren’t considering the impact she and her co-workers will face if the casino is placed elsewhere in the region.
“This is our livelihood,” she said. “If [opponents] think a casino built 30 miles down the road is not going to impact Saratoga Springs, they’re ridiculous. It is going to impact Saratoga Springs. It is going to impact 630 people here. We’re going to have competition.”
Danelle Healey, the racino’s human resources generalist, said upwards of 40 applicants per week seek jobs at the racino. Last year, she said, more than 3,000 people applied for jobs, which range from dishwashers to managers.
The racino is preparing to break ground on an aggressive $30 million expansion project this spring, regardless of whether it gets approval to host a new casino. The project will add a five-story, 120-room hotel, a restaurant and 24,000 square feet of event space.
With table games, the racino could add 600 jobs, Healey said. Without them, however, the facility will likely add only enough staff to run the planned hotel.
“We could even lose staff,” she said. “If Rensselaer or some other city or town near us gets it, we’ll have to do layoffs, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”
Opponents of siting a casino in the Spa City weren’t won over by the workers’ appeal. They believe the racino operators should have realized the potential ramifications of the casino gambling legislation before they decided to support it.
Colin Klepetar, an area school teacher and organizer of Saratogians Against More Casino Gambling, said the racino operator shouldn’t obscure the issue of bringing table games to the city by trotting out its workforce. He said the racino is putting its workforce “between a rock and a hard place” by enlisting them to advocate for a Las Vegas-style casino in Saratoga Springs.
“Putting their jobs in the middle of this issue, we don’t think it’s right and we don’t think it’s appropriate,” he said.
During his State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the state will release its request for applications for casino operators sometime in March. The applications will be due in June and a decision on sites will be reached sometime during the fall, the governor said last week.
Competition over where to site the Capital Region’s casino heated up even before voters approved it in the referendum in November. Several casino operators have contacted developer U.W. Marx about DeLaet’s Landing, a 24-acre residential and commercial development planned along the Hudson River in the city of Rensselaer, with one even offering to buy a piece of the land.
Another potential site has materialized: Tobin’s First Prize Center, a dilapidated former meat processing plant on the Albany-Colonie border. Capital Gaming, a limited liability corporation established just two days after November’s election, has signed a contract to take interest in the property from Exchange Street Associates, an investment group that has a lease-purchase agreement with the Albany County Industrial Development Agency.
Capital Gaming shares the same mailing address as Flaum Management Co., a Rochester property developer and commercial real estate company. Robert Ganz, an attorney representing Exchange Street Associates, said there are many contingencies and benchmarks in the contract, many loosely matching the state’s timeline for finding locations for the casinos.
“That does line up with the siting process,” he said.