A Full Blown Saratoga Casino? Be Very Afraid
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY--Like the people that read this column, I am always willing to take chances and admire those that do.
That said, how in the world can anyone think putting a full casino right next door Saratoga Race Course is a good idea? Who wants to take the chance of damaging the crown jewel of American racing? Not me.
When the New York casino constitutional amendment passed in 2012, it called for four casinos to be built outside of New York City. There are four regions that were carved out upstate in and around agreements with Native American gaming sites.
One such region is the Saratoga/Albany area and it will definitely have a casino with poker, blackjack, craps, roulette etc. Saratoga Raceway has a video lottery facility across Nelson Avenue with 1,782 VLTs.
The VLTs have been in operation there since March of 2014 and purses for the harness horsemen have more than tripled.
One could argue that part of the decline at Saratoga Race Course the past 10 years has been due to 1,782 VLTs only a few hundred yards away. If that is true, it is a very small part. Walk through the Raceway's gaming floor and you will see more walkers and oxygen tanks than horse racing products. There is little crossover but logistically it had to hurt some.
In 2001, when the VLT legislation was being proposed, I was the media spokesperson and strategist. Nobody wanted VLTs at Saratoga Race Course for many reasons and we knew that the ones next door might have some impact. That was more than balanced by 5,000 VLTs downstate at Aqueduct so the net effect was going to be extremely positive.
The late Bruce Hamilton, executive director of the Harness Breeders of New York, was the driving force behind the effort to get VLTs at New York racetracks and there should be a statue of him outside of every facility. He was indefatigable.
Now, Saratoga Raceway is pushing hard for the table games to complete the transition from a "racino" to a "casino." The problem is that table games attract an entirely different clientele. Horseplayers love to play cards and various games of skill.
From the 80/20 female-to-male ratio that exists now, it will change to about 50/50 and the increase in males will be ones that also like to play horses.
In the state-wide voter referendum in November, the voters of Saratoga County voted 57 percent to 43 percent against legalizing casinos anywhere in New York. So there is no real groundswell for support to have it here.
But the way the referendum worked, there is no follow-up referendum where a community gets to vote on a specific site. Still, 57 to 43 is considered a landslide. Any elected official with 57 percent of the vote immediately says the voters have spoken and have given he/she a mandate.
Well, the mandate up here was a big, fat NO! And this was a legitimate vote since there were no organized groups for or against it.
The process to decide where the casino eventually goes has begun. A committee that is part of the New York Gaming Commission has been selected and they have a few things to consider.
First is economic activity and business development. This will count towards 65 percent of the scoring and will evaluate capital investment, revenue generated, jobs, facility quality, fastest to market, financial ability, and experience in development and operation of a quality gaming facility.
Yes, Saratoga Raceway could get up and running faster than anyone else in the Albany/Saratoga region since they are the only one currently operating. While that is important for the first few years, a new facility would provide far more economic impact in terms of construction and operation.
Second, 20 percent of the scoring will be based on impact on the host municipality, gaining public support and partnering with existing businesses to avoid another Atlantic City situation where the casinos damaged the local businesses.
Third, 15 percent of the scoring will be based on workforce development, addressing problem gambling, utilizing environmentally friendly construction or renovation practices, and creating a diverse workforce.
Ironically, the casino legislation was named the Upstate NY Gaming Economic Development Act. Outside of New York City, there is no county doing better economically than Saratoga and part of that is due to the hundreds of millions of dollars that New York State has provided to help build the computer chip fabrication plant in Malta, which now employs thousands.
The impact of the host municipality and community will be the key factor and here is where the impact on Saratoga Race Course will be paramount. There are two main groups on each side of the issue.
Against the casino, mostly because of quality of life issues and the impact on downtown businesses, is a group called S.A.V.E., which stands for Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion. You can read about them atwww.savesaratoga.org.
In favor of the casino is a group sponsored by Saratoga Raceway called Destination Saratoga. You can read about them atwww.destinationsaratoga.com.
Destination Saratoga uses the image of a Thoroughbred horse on its logo and I find that disingenuous since it makes it seem that supporting them will help the Thoroughbreds. I say it will not but there is an argument that a destination casino will attract more people to the area and help all businesses.
Where there has not been enough pushback is how a casino next door will affect Saratoga Race Course, which is the economic anchor for the area and the real destination. Because of the Thoroughbred track, we have year-round, world-class food and health care because of thoroughbred horse racing at Saratoga Race Course.
Can anyone say that a full-blown casino will not hurt business at Saratoga Race Course?
Can anyone say that it is worth taking the chance?
What is the plan if it turns out to be damaging to Saratoga Race Course?
Some will say that the history of Saratoga is all about casinos and they are right. The only reason we have any racing here is that the casino patrons needed an afternoon diversion since the casinos did not open until 7 p.m. So without casinos, there wouldn't even be the world-class horse racing we have.
But one historical fact that many seem to ignore is that the explosive growth of Saratoga Race Course happened after the casinos left town.
Today, hundreds of thousands of people visit Saratoga Springs each summer and the main draw is Saratoga Race Course. Mention Saratoga anywhere in the world and the image conjured is one of Thoroughbred horse racing.
Is anything worth the risk of damaging the real economic engine of the region? I just can't see it. Even if I am wrong and there is no real negative impact on Saratoga Race Course, can anyone say with any impartial authority that it was worth taking the risk?
And who is to say that what a casino looks like now won't develop into something more insidious? Can you say on-line gaming and sports wagering?
The sitting committee for the four casinos will have a hard enough job. But nowhere will it be harder than deciding whether or not to put one in Saratoga. They will have to go against public opinion in an area with little need for economic development and already the beneficiary of over a billion dollars in state aid over the years.
In my opinion, it is not worth it. There will be a casino in this region but I just can't support one in this backyard. Call me what you want; I can take it.
But, what I don't want to do is sit around years from now and question how this happened and the crown jewel of American racing was damaged irreparably.
Dick Powell's column first appeared at brisnet.com
Late Breaking:The City Council of Saratoga Springs voted 5 - 0 in favor of a resolution that was against having a destination casino in the Spa City Tuesday night. The vote reverses a December 2013 vote that approved a casino for the city and four of the five members then are members now. Mayor Joanne Yepsen visited with the New York Gaming Commission Tuesday morning and brought letters and emails to them that were overwhelmingly against. This follows a 57 to 43 per cent vote by Saratoga County voters in November 2013 against the constitutional amendment that would approve four casinos upstate and three more downstate years later.