Times Union

After months of contentious debate, the owners of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway have abandoned plans for a full-blown casino at Saratoga Springs’ 10-year-old racino in favor of a new site off Interstate 90 in East Greenbush.

The move fundamentally resets the chessboard as multiple developers vie for what will likely be the lone casino license handed out in the Capital Region.

James Featherstonhaugh and Daniel Gerrity, the partners behind the racino at the Saratoga harness track, have purchased about 72 acres off Route 4 between I-90 exits 8 and 9 in a section of town known as Thompson Hill, Featherstonhaugh told the Times Union on Monday. There, across Route 4 from a FedEx distribution center and a Walmart, they propose to build a $300 million resort casino.

The partners have also acquired an option for 80 adjacent acres and nearly 300 more acres six miles away off Exit 11 in Schodack, where they intend to build an 18-hole championship golf course and spa at the Evergreen Country Club to complement the new gambling complex.

“Our decision there is final: We’re going to bid from East Greenbush,” Featherstonhaugh said, praising “the most spectacular” vistas of Albany. “I’m really excited about the location and what we can do there.”

The new strategy comes less than a week after the suburban Rensselaer County town quietly passed a generic resolution supporting “any reasonable” casino development, and after months of rancor in the Spa City between factions supporting and opposing gambling expansion at the racino. That bitter debate had cast serious doubt on the viability of a Saratoga bid.

“It had become apparent to us that no matter how much we and the city worked together that it was unlikely that we were going to be able to bid from Saratoga in a robust enough way to win a license,” Featherstonhaugh said. “The city of Saratoga, for whatever reason, is not comfortable supporting a facility of the kind, size and nature which would be needed to win a license.”

The 100,000-square-foot project would include a 300-room hotel, nightclub, sports bar, show room and 20,000 square feet of high-end retail space, and create 1,700 construction jobs and 1,700 permanent positions, Featherstonhaugh said.

Plans also call for partnerships with local entertainment venues — a chief source of opposition in Saratoga Springs — and athletic fields for youth sports.

While East Greenbush had been included in early speculation about where a Capital Region casino might wind up, town Supervisor Keith Langley said Friday that he had not seen “any formal presentations.”

In a statement Monday, Langley said the Town Board is eager to learn more about the proposal.

“It appears we may have a solid proposal that can be placed before the town for review,” Langley said, citing the potential financial boost of as much as $7 million annually to the cash-strapped town.

“That amount of funding would help correct town financial issues and help provide property tax relief to our residents if the project moves forward,” he said.

Wherever in the eight-county Capital Region the casino lands, the host county will receive $11.4 million in annual community aid. That aid will be split with the host municipality — a promise that has enticed fiscally challenged communities.

A bid could also arrive from Schenectady.

News of the shift came two days before would-be casino operators must pay their $1 million application fees to the state Gaming Commission on Wednesday ahead of an applicants’ conference April 30.

Empire Resorts, which plans a $750 million casino project in Monticello, and Greenetrack, proposing a $400 million resort complex in Orange County, were among the first wave of depositors Monday.

The Gaming Commission plans to release the list of groups that made the fee payments on Thursday.

With the applications — due June 30 — for the $50 million Capital Region gambling license, aspiring casino developers will have to show local support in the form of a resolution from the town board or city council.

Last month, the Saratoga Springs City Council unanimously backed a resolution opposing the state law authorizing the construction of four upstate casinos because of what the resolution’s backers described as a lack of sufficient local control.

While that resolution did not specifically mention the proposed racino expansion, it was widely interpreted as a rebuke of the project.

Featherstonhaugh said the racino will still push ahead with a planned $30 million expansion to its existing Saratoga Springs facility, including a 108-room hotel and event center. That expansion combined with a casino license in East Greenbush should be able absorb job cuts resulting from the loss of the local gambling monopoly currently enjoyed by the racino’s nearly 2,000 video lottery terminals, Featherstonhaugh said.

Gerrity, the majority owner of the racino, said last month that a casino elsewhere in the Capital Region could slash the racino’s business in half.

Because of its long-standing ties to gambling at the historic Saratoga Race Course and the racino, Saratoga Springs was initially viewed as a natural front-runner in the sweepstakes for casino expansion. But in the aftermath of November’s statewide vote — in which Spa City residents opposed the constitutional amendment 57-43 percent — forced the owners to look elsewhere.

“There was no ‘aha’ moment when the decision was made,” Featherstonhaugh said, adding that he had looked at as many as 15 alternate sites over the course of “months.”

“Certainly after the (City Council) vote, we all realized it,” he said. “But I was very concerned about it from quite early on … although we were committed to making an effort, just out of respect for, affection for and commitment to the community up there.”

Rensselaer County, just across the Hudson River from Albany and about 40 minutes from western Massachusetts, holds an obvious appeal. Also, East Greenbush voters backed the November ballot measure by a nearly 52-to-48 percent margin.

In January, the city of Rensselaer’s Common Council voted to try to lure a casino developer to 24 riverfront acres. Mayor Dan Dwyer said that site, owned by the construction firm U.W. Marx and known as De Laet’s Landing, is still in play.

“Operators are interested in the property,” Dwyer said Monday. “We’re shovel-ready.”

A Rochester-area developer, David Flaum, has already announced plans to partner with Capital District Off-Track Betting to apply for a license to build a $300 million to $400 million casino, indoor waterpark and hotel off Exit 23 of the Thruway in Albany.

In a statement, Rensselaer County Executive Kathy Jimino welcomed the interest in her county.

“I have no doubt that a casino here can have a positive impact through the tax relief it will allow for and the job creation and economic vitality it will create,” she said.