The operators of a nearly decade-old racino joined the Spa City’s political and economic establishment on Tuesday to send an indirect message to Gov. Andrew Cuomo: They plan to grow regardless of whether their operation is chosen to host one of three new full-bore casinos planned by the governor.
But the operators also made it clear, without once mentioning the term “table games,” that they believe the existing Saratoga Casino and Raceway is an ideal spot for a full gaming resort given Saratoga’s history as a gambling town, its status as a horse racing landmark and the presence of attractions including the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, museums and spring-fed baths.
“Here in Saratoga we have the best of everything,” said James Featherstonhaugh, the racino’s chief spokesman and part owner, as he unveiled a $30 million expansion that includes a 120-room hotel and a 24,000-square-foot venue that could host mixed martial arts events if that sport is approved by lawmakers.
Like MMA, casino gambling won’t come to New York unless it is approved by the Legislature. Expanded gaming, however, needs a constitutional amendment requiring a statewide referendum.
Cuomo wants that vote to happen as early as November, and has called for a phased plan in which the first three casinos would be licensed upstate as potential engines of economic growth.
Looking toward that possibility, Featherstonhaugh and other supporters of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway have for months said their facility would be a logical spot for a full casino. The current facility features video lottery terminals and betting at the harness track, but no “live” table games such as blackjack, poker, roulette or craps.
Cuomo has made no promises that Saratoga or other existing racinos throughout the state will get preference in what would surely be fierce competition for full casino status.
But recent exclusivity deals struck between Cuomo and two native tribes that run full casinos, the Mohawk in the North Country and the Oneida in Central New York, and the prospect of a third settlement with the Seneca in the western part of the state mean that large swaths of the state are already off the table to get the new resorts.
Featherstonhaugh stressed the facility’s expansion will go ahead regardless of whether Saratoga Casino and Raceway receives full casino status. Nor was Tuesday’s announcement meant to send a direct message to the governor: “He’s got an email and I could send it like that,” said Featherstonhaugh.
But it was clear that the rollout provided an occasion for Saratoga to strut its stuff as a potentially world-class gaming center.
Local dignitaries at the announcement included Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus, Mayor Scott Johnson, and GOP state Sen. Kathy Marchione, Assemblyman Tony Jordan and Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel Trades Council, the union representing racino employees.
Cognizant of the power that labor wields in the Legislature, Featherstonhaugh stressed that construction of the expansion will be a union affair.
He added that if the facility were to be designated as a casino, it could expand to host table games on-site.
Under Cuomo’s plan, the three upstate sites would enjoy a five-year exclusivity deal to operate before casinos in the more populated and prosperous areas downstate — Long Island, New York City and the northern suburbs — could open.
Ultimately, the plan envisions seven casinos statewide.
Getting the plan through the full Legislature isn’t a sure bet since upstate lawmakers may be competing against one another to get one of the first three in their district.
Already, Republican Sen. John Bonacic has offered an alternate plan that would place five casinos upstate phased in by 2017.
Three would be in the Catskills, but one would be slated for the Capital Region, which would include Saratoga.
Marchione said she likes Bonacic’s measure.
She suggested that she wouldn’t support a plan that has lawmakers approving casinos before knowing where they would be located.
“I absolutely would like to know that,” she said.
Cuomo has said the Legislature should have no role in selecting sites for the new casinos.
Tuesday’s announcement actually represents a bit of downsizing at the Saratoga racino.
In January 2012, its operators put out plans for an approximately $40 million expansion — if table games were approved at the venue.