Saratoga Springs knows more about gambling than most cities.
Back in the late 1800s, table gambling was an open, if illegal, summertime activity. Later, “lake houses” on the city’s outskirts thrived on the combination of liquor sales and illegal games of skill and chance.
Since 2004, when video lottery terminal gaming was legalized, the Saratoga Casino and Raceway has drawn millions of visitors to its sprawling Crescent Avenue facility.
And of course, thoroughbred racing has been a source of summer wagering action for many of the past 150 years, with Saratoga Race Course among the most successful tracks in the country. The harness track at the raceway, also known as the racino, runs most of the year as well.
So some people are surprised that major public opposition has emerged to locating a full-gaming casino at the racino in the wake of November’s vote in which the public authorized four casinos in different parts of upstate New York, including one in the Capital Region.
The New York Times even devoted a story to the community’s division over gambling on Monday.
“I’m getting calls and emails about equal on both sides, with a bunch of people in the middle,” said Joanne Yepsen, the city’s new mayor, who acknowledged that the issue has been divisive.
Yepsen has personally opposed the expansion of gambling but said she’s now working on trying to have city input in the siting process, which will be controlled by the state.
“This isn’t like Massachusetts, where every community got to hold a referendum,” she said. “My concern is how we can maximize our input given the statute.”
In November, 57 percent of city residents voted against legalizing full gambling in the state, though the statewide proposition passed by a substantial margin. The proposition also lost countywide, by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.
“Very few people are actually for the casino,” contended Colin Klepetar, a middle school math teacher and organizer of Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion. “More people are passionate about preserving Saratoga the way it is.”
His group, known as SAVE Saratoga, is worried the city’s vibrant downtown will lose visitors, real estate values will fall and local control will be lost because site selection is being done by state officials.
Members of the group, wearing bright red customized T-shirts, packed the Jan. 7 City Council meeting to voice their concerns.
“It’s going to upset the quality of life and fragile economics of our city,” said resident Charlie Samuels, another member of SAVE Saratoga.
The plan to add table games at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway has major supporters in the city, though, and racino officials said they want to work with the city to make their project acceptable.
“We’ve been open for the last 10 years as a casino. We’ve been a good member of the community,” racino Vice President George “Skip” Carlson said at the council meeting.
The racino has been successful enough that it’s planning a $30 million expansion, including an on-site hotel and 24,000-square-foot event space, in the spring, regardless of whether it is selected by the state for live gaming.
A pro-casino group called Destination Saratoga, which has financial backing from the racino, includes former city public works commissioner Tom McTygue and former county Republican chairman Jasper Nolan.
County government leaders officially support locating a full-gaming casino in Saratoga Springs and have shown no indication of reversing course because of the opposition. County and city government coffers could receive millions annually from the casino, according to supporters.
Destination Saratoga contends that 600 or more new jobs would be created if the racino becomes a full casino, while there’s the potential for job losses among the more than 630 who work there now if a casino instead goes somewhere else in the Capital Region. Gaming interests are also looking at potential sites in Rensselaer and Albany.
“Our region has thrived thanks to this world-class gaming destination,” Dan Hogan, co-chairman of Destination Saratoga, said at a news conference last week at which racino employees spoke for job preservation.
Saratoga Casino and Raceway spokeswoman Rita Cox said a full-gaming casino elsewhere in the region competing with its VLTs “would definitely hurt. It could cost a couple of hundred jobs.”
The site decision will be made by a state gaming commission. In his Jan. 8 State of the State speech, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the siting commission will be headed by Hobart and William Smith Colleges President Mark Gearan and will issue a request for applications March 1. Responses will be due in June. Cuomo’s goal is to make site selection decisions by fall.
The Cuomo administration strongly pushed for passage of the constitutional amendment to legalize gambling at a limited number of locations, contending that the state loses billions of dollars every year to casinos in other states. Casinos are also seen as a way of reviving stagnated resort regions in the Catskills and Southern Tier.
The Capital Region and Saratoga County, however, are doing relatively well. They have among the state’s lowest unemployment rates and an emerging technology sector. In Saratoga Springs, tourism remains strong, and Broadway is crowded with college students, convention visitors and tourists, as well as Capital Region residents who come to the city to eat, shop or catch a movie at the new downtown cinema.
Yepsen said her concerns include maintaining Saratoga Springs’ quality of life, which she said includes strong arts and business communities and a healthy downtown, and ensuring the preservation of horse racing despite the new competition.
The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce — the county’s largest business interest group — organized a casino information forum in December but hasn’t taken a position in the current debate. Chamber President Todd Shimkus said the group continues to seek information and await more details about how the casino sites will be selected.
From what state officials have said, applicants’ business plans and financial commitments will be major factors, while community support for a casino will also be weighed but as a lesser factor.
Shimkus said there are two different issues: the impact of locating a new casino in Saratoga Springs and the impact on Saratoga Springs if a casino is located elsewhere in the region.
“We don’t think there’s enough information out there, particularly on the economic impact, to make an assessment one way or the other,” Shimkus said.
There are also concerns that a convention center included in the racino’s plans could draw business away from the downtown Saratoga Springs City Center — and that the racino could compete for performers with existing arts organizations like Proctors in Schenectady and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
At the City Council meeting, City Center President Mark Baker said the casino issue “has a lot of nuance to it and also a lot of emotion” but went on to say that the “residual impact on the downtown district could be devastating.”
Cox said the racino has been steering its staff and visitors downtown for years, and that wouldn’t change if a full casino is built.
“It won’t hurt; it will actually help, because we will be drawing more people to Saratoga,” she said.
The racino attracted 2.1 million visitors in 2013, Cox said — a number that is bound to go up if more types of gambling are offered.
Cox said people most associate the term “Las Vegas-style” with neon and multiple casinos, but that isn’t what the racino wants.
“The way we would do it is what works for Saratoga: respect for architecture, history and horses — what has made Saratoga successful for the last 150 years,” she said.
The distinction doesn’t placate opponents.
“Saratoga-style and Las Vegas-style are just talking points. They’re trying to soften what they’re selling,” countered Klepetar of SAVE Saratoga. “Saratoga-style, we don’t buy it. They’re just trying to maximize profits.”
Shimkus said whatever decision is made should be in the best interest of the Saratoga economy — but determining what that is is complicated.
“Part of the challenge is that Saratoga is a unique community in which there is already a casino. It’s hard to find something comparable,” he said.