Spa City not only possible casino site
Rensselaer County has suitable spot; others interested
CAPITAL REGION DeLaet’s Landing was envisioned long before the legalization of table gaming in New York was given any serious consideration.
Planning for the proposed 24-acre residential and commercial development on the Hudson River began around the same time the first of the state’s three racinos opened in Saratoga Springs in 2004. The ambitious project featuring a high-rise hotel, a man-made harbor and more than 1.3 million square feet of mixed-use space was aimed at reuniting the city of Rensselaer with a large swath of its waterfront.
With an estimated $250 million price tag, progress on the development stalled for years as the economy faltered. Then late last winter, crews from U.W. Marx Construction began grading part of the site — the first visible sign of the project moving forward.
Around the same time, state officials began discussing legalized casino gambling in earnest. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Upstate New York Gaming Economic Development Act was approved last summer after some tweaking by the state Legislature, allowing a total of four casinos — including at least one each for the Capital Region, Southern Tier and Catskills.
As support for Cuomo’s initiative grew, so did outside interest in DeLaet’s Landing. Even before voters approved the ballot proposition Tuesday, U.W. Marx was contacted by casino developers interested in the waterfront project.
“One of them even gave us an offer for a piece of the land,” said Jeff West, vice president of the Troy-based company.
And it’s not hard to see why. With its sleek design and high-rise buildings, DeLaet’s Landing looks like a small waterfront resort.
The property on Broadway is less than a half-mile from the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station, which runs hourly trains to New York City. The land is just across the river from the state Capitol and downtown Albany and close to New York State Thruway Exit 23.
Plans for a harbor at DeLaet’s Landing don’t appear to be panning out, yet the project will assuredly include boat slips that will allow marine traffic along the Hudson to dock.
In a sense, DeLaet’s Landing has everything a casino operator could want and more, especially considering that U.W. Marx is poised to break ground on the first phase of the project. West said the passage of the gaming legislation suddenly added a new twist for an old project he’s fought hard to start.
“It kind of caught us by surprise,” he said. “But it’s a perfect site for something like that.”
Gaming experts and state legislators have suggested that the Saratoga Casino and Raceway is a logical place to land the live-table gaming facility promised to the Capital Region. But nothing in the law approved by state legislators last summer suggests the Saratoga Springs racino has the inside track to securing a casino when the state Gaming Commission appoints the five-member board to choose their locations.
The commission is expected to select the board after the legislation goes into effect in January. Once established, the board will put out a request for applications for “zone two” gaming facility licenses and then select operators based on a variety of factors.
These factors include the number of jobs expected to be created, the amount of capital investment planned, the level of revenue expected to be generated for the state and financing availability. Also factoring into the decision will be the level of local support for a casino, the number of amenities, how the facility will integrate with regional tourism, the experience in gaming development of the operator and the speed with which the project can be constructed.
“Every single application is going to be weighted the same,” said a spokesman for the commission. “There are no foregone conclusions.”
Cuomo has indicated he’ll let the market decide the placement of the casinos. During a visit to Bethel Woods in Sullivan County last week, the governor stressed the free-market approach toward building the new casinos.
“We’re going to leave it up to the private market,” he said. “Private-sector developers can come in, and if they feel there’s a market, they can put down hundreds of millions of dollars and build a casino.”
Some believe this approach leaves open the possibility for other Capital Region communities to land a casino over the presumed favorite, Saratoga Springs. Departing Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings said he sees no reason why a site couldn’t be picked in the city’s downtown.
“This is a place that should be given very serious consideration,” he said.
Last summer, the Albany Convention Center Authority reviewed a proposal to build an 80,000-square-foot meeting facility that would serve as a hub between the Empire State Plaza, the Capitol Walkway and the Times Union Center. The new structure would leave less for a casino developer to build, Jennings said.
“It would seem to me that [the convention center] could be an integral part of that project,” he said.
There’s also a sizeable financial incentive for counties to draw casino operators. Though all Capital Region counties will share some of the state proceeds from table gambling, the host county and community will split $11.4 million annually.
This pot of money is alluring to areas with smaller tax bases, such as Fulton County, where voters comfortably supported the gambling resolution. Now county officials are wondering what the next step should be toward attracting a company bidding for the casino.
James Mraz, the county’s planning director, said there are plenty of sites that could be developed.
“The key to all this is you need to have a developer,” he said.
And that’s the advantage Saratoga County has over other areas in the Capital Region: It already has a prospective casino developer that’s expanding. James Featherstonhaugh, part-owner of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, said his operation will complete a $30 million expansion of its facility regardless of the operator chosen by the state.
In the coming months, the racino plans to add a five-story, 120-room hotel, a restaurant and 20,000 square feet of event space. If selected for a casino, Featherstonhaugh said the racino would see even more expansion.
“We think we’ll make a compelling bid,” he said. “We will be uniquely able to attract a tourist crowd that would otherwise not be there.”
There remain concerns in Saratoga Springs and elsewhere in the county about how table gambling would impact the city’s downtown and thoroughbred racing at the historic Saratoga Race Course. Only 46 percent of voters in Saratoga County supported the ballot initiative for table gaming.
Featherstonhaugh said the lack of support for the referendum stems from a negative stigma wrongly placed on casino gaming. He believes support for a casino would improve if people could see how gaming couples well with the hospitality and entertainment industries.
“Now that the referendum is over, I think it’s incumbent on those of us who are part of the industry to make the case to the public that casino gambling over the years has changed,” he said.