Mayor Joanne Yepsen on Tuesday called on both opponents and supporters of bringing a live-table gaming casino to the city to “find common ground” so the state’s Gaming Commission doesn’t site the Capital Region’s casino in an area that will harm the city.
Yepsen devoted a sizable segment of her first State of the City address to the issue of casino gambling and acknowledged the issue is divisive. But she urged both sides to see beyond their differences to ensure the commission’s siting panel takes heed of the city’s input.
“Being divisive and disingenuous will get us nowhere, and I implore all of you to find common ground and think about how we can maximize the precious little input we have,” she said during the speech, delivered at the City Center. “And I want to assure our citizens that they will have a mayor who will keep fighting for downtown, keep fighting for horse racing and keep fighting to maintain our seat at the table, so our community can have a say in what’s best for the city of Saratoga Springs.”
Yepsen also alluded to working with the owners of Saratoga Casino and Raceway — a leading contender to win the right to build a full-service casino — so any proposal for expansion will include input from the city’s land-use boards. The racino is planning a $30 million expansion project that is not subject to review by the city’s planning and zoning boards.
“If Albany and the casino industry are interested in having that very fair and very reasonable conversation, then they have my undivided attention, but until then, I remain very concerned about this issue, and I will continue to listen to all our citizens,” she said.
Yepsen also used the address to establish a number of new advisory committees. Among them, she named the City Racing Advisory Council, which she tasked with determining the effects of state gaming law on the horse racing industry.
Yepsen also named a 15-member Saratoga Springs Business Advisory Council, which she asked to report back to the City Council on May 30. She said the panel of businesspeople will craft recommendations to help eliminate unnecessary regulations, sustain economic growth and more effectively market the city’s assets.
“Our city cannot reach its potential if the private sector and public sector are isolated in their respective silos with little to no communication,” she said. “To the contrary, the path to augmenting our prosperity lies in building public-private partnerships that can open the lines of communication and facilitate actions between city government and businesses.”
Yepsen also warned the state grant to develop waterfront property purchased by the city several years ago is about to expire and “hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursable state funds” could be lost. She said the city has 15 months to “fast track” the waterfront park project — something she intends to spearhead, starting with a meeting this week to implement a “strategy with strict deadlines and budget constraints.”
“It is imperative that we try to save our credibility with the state and we show them Saratoga Springs is a good investment,” she said. “Let’s get this done and give our citizens a waterfront park they can enjoy.”
The address concluded with a benediction by Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein, who used the closing prayer to urge cooperation and conciliation. He also asked the crowd to hold hands and join him in singing “We’ll Walk Hand-in-Hand Someday” — a tribute to folk singer Pete Seeger, who died Monday.
Yepsen’s first state-of-the-city speech was well-received by many in the standing-room-only audience, including members of Destination Saratoga, the advocacy group lobbying for casino gambling at the racino. Dan Hogan, the co-chairman of the group, praised Yepsen for delivering a positive speech.
“She’s keeping an open mind and that’s really what we’ve been asking for,” he said.
Opponents of bringing casino gaming to the city weren’t as smitten with Yepsen’s speech. Colin Klepetar, the co-founder of Saratogians Against More Casino Gambling, faulted the mayor for not taking a harder stance against bringing table games to the city when 57 percent of voters in Saratoga Springs were opposed to the measure when it was put on the ballot in November.
“We were disappointed she didn’t go far enough to represent the voice of residents,” he said. “We think that with the success of our downtown and our horse racing industry, we can continue down a successful path we have without bringing casino gambling to our city.”
Public Works Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, the lone Republican on the City Council, said Yepsen’s first address touched on many issues that he found noteworthy — from improving the city’s infrastructure to tackling homelessness. He also supported the mayor’s naming of a racing advisory council, which should help keep him and the city’s other commissioners abreast of issues that could impact harness and thoroughbred racing in the city.
“All in all, I think it was a good speech,” he said.
City Center President Mark Baker was pleased to hear Yepsen call for a degree of local oversight over the construction of a casino if Saratoga Springs is chosen as one of the sites. He said the mayor’s statement seemed aimed at the racino as it moves forward with its own expansion plans.
“Certainly I think it’s a clear statement of protecting the downtown corridor, retail business and the City Center and the business it brings to that corridor,” he said.
Baker praised the mayor’s first major address. And while he believes she’s set an aggressive agenda for the coming year, he also sees a City Council that will help her accomplish some of her goals.
“There are some good things on the mayor’s agenda and the council seems to be in concert helping to pull all that together,” he said.
Reach Gazette reporter Justin Mason at 395-3113, firstname.lastname@example.org or @MasonAbridged on Twitter.