Racino moving its chips
Group eyes opportunity in East Greenbush
SARATOGA SPRINGS Operators of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway abandoned their controversial bid to bring live-table gambling to the racino and will focus efforts on securing a state gaming license for a site in East Greenbush.
Minority owner James Featherstonhaugh contacted city officials Monday, informing them the racino won’t be in the mix of sites vying for one of four licenses being offered by the state Gaming Commission. Instead, the business will shifting its efforts toward an undisclosed location in the Rensselaer County town of East Greenbush.
“Saratoga Casino and Raceway intends to pursue a bid for a ‘destination casino’ license in East Greenbush,” reads a statement released late Wednesday afternoon. “We will also continue to operate our successful facility in Saratoga and we will look forward to maintaining our strong partnerships within this community.”
The abrupt change in direction comes as the Wednesday deadline for the $1 million fee required to apply for one of the licenses approaches. Last week, a spokeswoman for the racino indicated the ownership had full intention of paying the fee, but were undecided on whether to move forward with a full application for a gaming license.
But support for bringing live-table games to the racino was tepid at best, leading members of the City Council to unanimously adopt a nonbinding resolution in March indicating they would not support a casino under the conditions laid out by the gaming legislation approved by voters last year. Evidence of local support is a critical element that applicants must demonstrate for their proposal to even be considered by the commission’s gaming facility location board and the racino operators were facing an uphill battle to secure a necessary resolution from the council.
“It’s clear that the Saratoga Casino and Raceway owners feel that Saratoga Springs does not meet the economic criteria set forth by our state legislators in the bill that passed and recognized that the majority of our citizens expressed their opposition to a full casino resort in our city,” Mayor Joanne Yepsen said in a statement released Monday.
Yepsen indicated the operators are now shifting their efforts in Saratoga Springs toward finishing a $30 million expansion project announced last year. The two-phase project proposes adding a total of 134,000 square feet, including a 108-room hotel, 137-seat steakhouse, and 2,000-seat event center.
Operators have until June 30 to submit an application for a casino with live table games. A mandatory conference of applicants is scheduled for April 30 in Albany.
Featherstonhaugh, racino majority owner Daniel Gerrity and a spokeswoman from the racino did not return calls for comment.
Rensselaer County and the city of Rensselaer have already issued resolutions supporting casino gambling. The 24-acre U.W. Marx project known as de Laet’s Landing on the Hudson in Rensselaer remains in the running to attract a casino operator.
Then last week, members of the East Greenbush Town Board adopted a resolution in support of casino gaming. Proposed by Supervisor Keith Langley and unanimously adopted, the resolution indicates the host fees from a casino “would be of significant benefit to the residents and taxpayers of the town, especially given the fiscal conditions the town is now facing.”
“[T]he Town Board joins Rensselaer County and other area communities in declaring support for the siting of a casino in East Greenbush to allow for presentation of proposals that benefit the town and its residents,” the resolution states.
Langley did not return calls for comment. He did, however, release a statement indicating the town’s interest in learning more about the racino operators’ proposal and how it could ease some of the town’s debt load, recently estimated to be in the millions of dollars.
“It’s still early, and we are looking to see what details and plans are presented,” he stated. “The amount of guaranteed revenue, between $5 million to $7 million annually plus possibly more, would certainly help our town deal with the financial burdens we inherited.”
It’s unclear where in East Greenbush the racino intends to target. Casino advocates in Saratoga Springs were told Monday the plan in Rensselaer County will target a swath of land between Exit 8 and Exit 9 on Interstate 90, near FedEx’s offices.
Tom McTygue, a horseman and member of the casino-advocacy group Destination Saratoga, said Featherstonhaugh informed he and others of the decision during a meeting at the racino late Monday afternoon. He now fears the shift could have a detrimental impact on harness racing if the new casino means a loss in revenue for the racino.
“Theres no question it’s going to have a major effect on the harness industry,” he said. “They know if they lose any amount of revenue here, they’ll have to cut back [on services to the horsemen].”
The shift in the racino’s focus coincided with the apparent dissolution of Destination Saratoga, a group many assumed to be an off-shoot funded by the operators. Destination Saratoga’s website vanished, as did its account on Twitter and Facebook. Morgan Hook, a spokesman with the group, released a statement saying they are “disappointed” the city won’t host a casino, but will “strongly support” its business in Saratoga Springs and its application for a license in the Capital Region.
The racino’s new plan also hasn’t appeased some of the most vocal critics of the plan to bring a casino to the city. Colin Klepetar, the co-chairman of Saratogians Against a Vegas-Style Expansion, said the focus now will shift to the racino’s proposed expansion and seeking to mitigate the impact the project could have on downtown.
“It’s in direct competition with our downtown core, which is very much our lifeline,” he said of the project. “We want the city to have a larger say in that. We’re not celebrating [this announcement] by any means.”
Mark Baker, president of the Saratoga Springs City Center Authority, echoed this sentiment. He said the full build-out of the racino’s expansion plans was the authority’s primary concern, not necessarily the impact of live table games.
“It’s a very interesting turn of events,’ he said. “For the city of Saratoga Springs, the idea that the application is being dropped is good news. The specifics of our concern remain.”