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In Saratoga, casino plan gets support, criticism

Wednesday, January 8, 2014
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— If the arguments at Tuesday night’s Saratoga Springs City Council meeting are any indication, the debate about whether a casino with live table games belongs in the city will be long and intense.

In the first City Council meeting for new Mayor Joanne Yepsen, speakers lined up for nearly 90 minutes to state their views on whether table gaming should come to the Saratoga Casino and Raceway.

The casino opposition group SAVE Saratoga had asked its supporters to turn out, and most of the speakers were with the group, which believes that a Las Vegas-style casino will lead to crime and other problems in the city.

They wore distinctive red T-shirts.

“Gambling hurts people and we don’t see it. I encourage you to be very careful about letting the camel’s nose into the tent,” said casino opponent Tom Barkley.

Representatives of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway and a pro-gambling group called Destination Saratoga also made their case to the council and a crowd of about 80, which overfl owed into the hallway.

“We are already a casino. We are a hometown casino,” said Kathleen Anderson, who works at the racino.

Despite its name, the existing facility has only video lottery terminals for gambling, as well as harness horse racing.

Counting the horse racing industry beyond the city, the racino employs or supports 1,200 workers, said Gordon Boyd, a member of Destination Saratoga.

“Please keep them in mind, and their families,” he told the council.

The City Council hasn’t taken any position on the issue, which has heated up since voters statewide approved a constitutional amendment in November allowing several live-gaming casinos to open around the state.

One will be in the Capital Region, and the Saratoga Casino and Raceway is the only announced applicant for that license.

However, 57 percent of city residents voted against casinos in the referendum — as did 54 percent of voters across Saratoga County.

Yepsen said at her inauguration last week that she opposes a “Las Vegas-style casino,” though she believes some agreement could be reached with the racino.

Some speakers urged the City Council to pass a resolution opposing a casino, though it isn’t clear what force such a vote would have.

A state siting board, yet to be appointed, will decide where casinos will go after reviewing investment and business plans.

“This is the best location for a licensed commercial casino,” said Skip Carlson, vice president of the racino.

The racino is planning a $30 million expansion, including a 120-room hotel. Officials there have indicated that the expansion will go forward regardless of whether the state selects the site, and they hope to break ground in the spring.

Carlson said 630 people work at the racino, and another 300 are connected with the on-site harness track.

“We’ve been open for 10 years as a casino, and we’ve been a good member of the community,” he said.

But some speakers doubted whether he could guarantee that in the future if the racino is expanded or the facility is sold to a new operator.

“The nature of the casino industry is not to care particularly for the long-term health of the host community,” said the Rev. Jay Ekman, a retired minister.

The City Council had no plans to take a vote Tuesday, and officials expect the debate to extend over months.

“We will continue the conversation,” Yepsen said.

 
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