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Area tourism officials lobby legislators

Thursday, January 31, 2013
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Proctors CEO Philip Morris, Chamber of Schenectady County President Chuck Steiner and Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus chat before a roundtable discussion about tourism issues at the Desmond Hotel in Colonie on Thursday.
Proctors CEO Philip Morris, Chamber of Schenectady County President Chuck Steiner and Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus chat before a roundtable discussion about tourism issues at the Desmond Hotel in Colonie on Thursday.

— Breakfast topics at the Desmond Hotel on Thursday included casino gambling, more state money for tourism and finally building Exit 3 on the Northway.

The 90-minute buffet was a chance for Capital Region tourism groups to interact with state legislators. The event was organized by the state’s Hospitality and Tourism Association, one of eight such meetings.

Mark Eagan, president of the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber of Commerce, asked the four Assembly members and two state senators in attendance to help push the state Department of Transportation to prioritize a construction plan that would create a direct route to Albany International Airport. He said the airport plays a critical role in economic development, whether through tourism or transportation, and easy access from the Northway would help utilize this asset.

Perception is also motivating the project, as Eagan argued that a different route to the airport might improve the region’s image.

“As we try to market the Capital Region to folks around the world … they go to the airport and they almost feel like they’re going through a cow pasture to get there,” he said, suggesting it didn’t currently present itself as an area ripe for development.

Another main focus of the groups in attendance was the proposed decrease of funds for tourism development in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget. Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau President Todd Garafano said it is critical for this money, which totals about $500,000, to be put back into the budget.

There was a similar cut in Cuomo’s proposed budget last year, but the state Legislature restored the money. Garafano is hoping a similar process plays out this year.

The message resonated with state Sen. Kathy Marchione, R-Halfmoon, who took notes on her iPad while tourism officials from Albany, Saratoga, Washington and Schenectady counties spoke.

“I heard ‘matching grant’ a lot here,” she said after the breakfast.

Marchione was also on the same page as Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus, who stressed the need to ensure any plans for non-Indian casinos in New York include funds to support the state’s horse industry.

Noting the success of breeders and the benefit to harness and thoroughbred race tracks with an investment in recent years of funds from electronic gaming machines, Shimkus said a similar plan needs to be outlined for casinos that would offer live-table games.

Continuing this process would impact the entire state, he said, highlighting the $200 million in annual regional economic impact of the Saratoga Race Course as evidence of how important the horse industry is.

Shimkus added that because the nine sites operating electronic table games have smoothly contributed to the state and horse industries, they should be the sites given the rights to live-table games. The constitutional amendment that would allow table games authorizes only seven casinos, and Cuomo has opened the door to building only three in the first stage of development.

If casinos are approved, Proctors CEO Philip Morris said they shouldn’t include 1,200- to 1,500-seat performance venues that might compete with existing theaters.

“I think it would be a disaster,” he said.

At the breakfast, tourism officials also questioned the planned minimum-wage increase in the governor’s budget and called for a more significant tourism interest on the Capital Region Economic Development Council.

Representatives from the Washington County Tourism Association, Chamber of Schenectady County, Albany County Convention & Visitors Bureau and Schenectady County Visitors Agency were also in attendance.

 
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