The clock is ticking for city officials to weigh in on the planned $30 million expansion at Saratoga Casino and Raceway, but there’s no guarantee their input will have any significant impact on the project.
State Gaming Commission officials issued a letter to Mayor Joanne Yepsen and several other parties Wednesday affirming its role as lead agency during the environmental review process. The correspondence touches off a 30-day period in which the city can submit comments about the project, which could eventually add a 108-room hotel, 137-seat restaurant and 2,000-seat event center.
Only the state Department of Environmental Conservation is listed as an involved agency in the review, giving the agency greater oversight of the project. The city, Saratoga County, the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation and the Saratoga County Sewer District are listed as interested agencies, meaning each has a chance to give input into the project, but no direct say over its approval.
City planners got their first glimpse of the project Wednesday evening, when a contingent from the racino gave a lengthy presentation on the project and fielded some comments from both the Planning Board and public. The 21⁄2-hour discussion focused primarily on the impact of the project and the uncertainty that continues to swirl around the 24,000-square-foot event center, which some fear will draw business away from the City Center on Broadway, at the head of downtown’s main business district.
The racino operators agreed to take comments from the meeting and return to discuss the project again in two weeks. Meanwhile, Yepsen said the city will continue to hear comments from residents and anticipates relaying them to the Gaming Commission on behalf of the city.
“I remain committed to working productively with all parties to produce an outcome that is mutually beneficial and that works together with the economic and cultural vision our citizens have for our city,” she said in a statement Thursday.
For the operators of the racino, the expansion represents a way to draw more business to the video lottery terminal facility after a casino with live table games opens elsewhere in the Capital Region — likely within a 50-mile radius of the racino. They estimate the expansion of casino gambling in the region could prompt the racino to shed nearly a third of its 630-person workforce.
“We expect to lose anywhere between 30 and 40 percent of our market share,” said George “Skip” Carlson, the racino’s vice president. “We’re almost a casino of convenience.”
Racino representatives described the event center as a place that would complement the facility’s gaming component with functions such as boxing matches or other sporting events commonly associated with casino gambling. The center would be part of a second phase of the expansion that would rely primarily upon the success of the first construction, which would include the hotel and restaurant.
“This is an incremental expansion,” Carlson explained “What we’re trying to do is to get people to come to our property more often — to stay longer,” he told members of the Planning Board. “And I think that benefits the city.”
But the racino couldn’t provide a time frame for when it plans to build the event center, which would be connected to the four-story hotel. Project engineer Anthony Stellato Jr. said the event center part of the project would come after the hotel’s success is gauged.
“This is our master plan,” he said. “What we can’t tell you is when we’re going to do it or how it will be programmed. It’s a concept.”
Several residents criticized the project’s potential impact on neighborhoods surrounding the facility and adjacent harness track, fearing the expansion could ultimately cause traffic and other infrastructure problems. Others blasted the proposed expansion as out of place for an area of the city far removed from the main business district.
“This is the antithesis of the city’s character,” remarked Nelson Avenue resident Ben Mirling, adding that the hotel represented “visual blight” in a residential area of Saratoga Springs.
White Street resident John Kaufman questioned what impact the event center would have on the City Center — a convention hall that routinely brings pedestrian traffic to businesses around Broadway during the off-season. If business dries up at the City Center, he worries that surrounding businesses could suffer.
“This could have a major impact on [downtown],” he said.
Planning Board Chairman Mark Torpey also questioned how the city can comment on a project when one of its most significant elements remains uncertain.
“We need to have some better sense about what the event center will ultimately be, just to be able to intelligently speak to it,” he said. “I do think it’s a pertinent question to address.”
Others questioned the impact on the city if the racino does not choose to go forward with the expansion. Board member Bob Bristol said the lack of an expansion could have a ripple effect through the city’s equine industry.
“We have to pay some serious attention to that,” he said. “It’s a bigger deal than might be believed.”
Last week, the racino expansion received support from the Saratoga Harness Horsepersons Association. Barry Segal, president of the 1,200-member organization, acknowledged the expansion will eventually be developed over one of the practice tracks now utilized by the horsemen.
“This support is based on management of Saratoga Casino and Raceway committing to keeping the main track open year-round, with additional training hours, and maintaining the sand track in the backstretch on a year-round basis,” he wrote in a letter to the Gaming Commission.