Jane Weihe recalled how the city once entertained a developer who wanted to build a Howard Johnson’s motor lodge in the heart of Congress Park.
But the plan never came to fruition and a crucial element of the city’s vibrant downtown was saved for future generations. Weihe views the proposed 134,000-square-foot expansion at the Saratoga Casino and Raceway as a serious threat to the city, much like the failed motel that could have destroyed its now-popular park.
“The way I see it is Saratoga Springs is at a crossroads,” she told members of the City Council on Wednesday. “This situation requires the mayor and the council to take any and all avenues to stop this project.”
Others speaking at a public hearing on the racino’s expansion said the council should embrace the project and work to mitigate any negative impacts it could have on downtown. Resident Phil Diamond said many of the opponents of the expansion are the same people who fought the racino’s effort to bring live table games to the sprawling Jefferson Street video lottery terminal parlor and harness track.
“The people who are fighting this vehemently just don’t want to give up,” he said. “We have to realize the racino has been a good neighbor of ours. . . . We should act as an interested agency and go along with the expansion.”
About 30 people attended the meeting, and about a dozen spoke. Though opinions of the expansion varied, the majority of residents commenting seemed to take a dim view of the two-phase proposal to build a 108-room hotel, 2,000-seat event center and 180-seat meeting room.
Some spoke with distrust about the project and the undisclosed goals of the racino operators. Others urged the council to assert itself as the lead agency during the state’s environmental review of the project so that local concerns are given proper consideration.
The state Gaming Commission has oversight of the expansion proposal because the facility hosts the state-operated video lottery terminals. Under state law, the commission has purview over any structure proposed on the 161-acre property that will impact the operation of the VLTs.
“They’re not going to be looking at it with the eye of the local people,” commented resident Russ Pettinger. “The Gaming Commission will not care about the local impacts.”
The Gaming Commission asserted itself as lead agency May 14, giving city officials 30 calender days to challenge this status. Comments on the proposal will continue to be accepted by the commission after June 14, but city officials wanted to gather input to submit as a package to the state early on in the process. What happens beyond that is uncertain — the council is divided on whether to seek lead agency status.
Mayor Joanne Yepsen has argued the city is better off working with the racino to mitigate any potential impacts the expansion has on downtown rather than waging a costly and likely unsuccessful battle for lead agency status in reviewing the project. She said the racino operators have been receptive to ideas pitched from the community to shape their project and even mulled building a sports stadium, rather than an event center.