For Saratoga County, the future of casino gaming is one of the most critical issues on the state’s legislative agenda.
There’s a strong possibility a proposal calling for Las Vegas-style casinos will put be to New York voters in a November referendum.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants such gambling to be launched at three upstate locations. Saratoga Casino & Raceway has already developed a $40 million expansion plan, but it’s uncertain which sites Cuomo prefers.
Many questions surround the gaming proposal, which could be a tremendous benefit or bust for the local economy and New York’s racing industry, depending on what state officials decide.
“We believe we are still the best option for maximizing revenue for the state as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Saratoga Casino & Raceway’s executive vice president of marketing, Rita Cox, said. “Every facility is going to have to understand how their facility will potentially be impacted by whatever the proposal is.”
Saratoga’s was the first racetrack casino to open in New York state, in January 2004. There are now nine, in addition to five Indian-run casinos where full gambling is allowed.
Proponents say allowing Las Vegas-style facilities — ones that feature slots and table games with human dealers — in New York would keep an estimated $3 billion in the state that people now spend at out-of-state and Canadian casinos.
The New York Gaming Association, composed of racetrack casino operators, says full-blown casinos should only be located at existing racetrack locations. However, several non-track sites have been mentioned, such as Lake George, Albany and the Catskills, for economic development purposes.
Gaming Association President James Featherstonhaugh said a freestanding casino in the Catskills would take business away from Aqueduct Racetrack’s new 5,000-machine casino that supports New York thoroughbred racing.
“Make no mistake — anything that hurts Aqueduct hurts Saratoga,” he said. “That’s where the money for (Saratoga Race Course) capital improvements comes from.”
New York Racing Association board member Charles Wait, of Saratoga Springs, said Cuomo promised — when the NYRA board agreed to “reorganize” — that thoroughbred racing would get a fair share of casino revenue.
“If non-racetrack locations are approved for casinos, then racing will absolutely need a share of the revenue,” he said. “Otherwise, thoroughbred racing will not survive in the long run.”
A Catskills casino also would cut into business at Yonkers’ and Monticello’s harness tracks.
Saratoga Casino & Raceway officials are closely monitoring plans for a large new casino in central Massachusetts.
Hard Rock International recently filed a non-refundable $400,000 application with Massachusetts officials for a proposed hotel and casino on the Eastern States Exposition campus in West Springfield. Plans call for a 400-plus-room hotel featuring a rock spa and tropical, indoor pool deck; a 200,000-square-foot casino with 100 to 125 table games and 2,500 to 3,000 slot machines; meeting space, a live music venue and a Hard Rock Café.
Saratoga’s casino currently has 1,782 video lottery terminals and electronic table games.
“At the rate gaming is expanding in the market, we’re watching it (Massachusetts) very closely,” Cox said. “It will have an impact. The Northeast has become so incredibly competitive that every competitive advantage is incredibly important.”
Raceway patron Jean Pondillo of Rensselaer said she would go elsewhere if Saratoga doesn’t get full casino gambling.
“I come here about once a month,” she said. “I haven’t won as big as I have at Foxwoods or Turning Stone. Plus, I like to travel.”
Roswell Whitcomb of Saratoga Springs said, “This is really Lotto. This is not a casino. You don’t have control over these slot (video lottery) machines.”
Full-scale gambling requires an amendment to the state constitution.
First, bills must be approved by two separately elected state legislatures. Last year, the Legislature approved a measure allowing for seven full casinos, but details such as locations, host community benefits, problem gambling, how operators would be selected and revenue splits were not included.
Identical legislation would have to pass during the current session, which ends in June, for a proposition to be put before voters in November. Most likely, it would be accompanied by a separate bill that lays out specifics.
Cuomo has called for a phased approach — three upstate casinos, followed later by four more. Ninety percent of revenue would fund education, with the rest providing tax relief for host communities.
Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Schenectady, said Cuomo’s proposal is an example of “more secret government” and lacks important details. He said that’s why he didn’t vote for last year’s bill.
“Three sites is no better than telling us you’re going to have seven sites,” he said. “He (Cuomo) said 90 percent of revenues would go to the state and 10 percent to local government. I have no idea what that means. What’s the host community going to get? What about (racing) owners and breeders?”
“It could very negatively impact Saratoga if it’s not done properly,” Tedisco said.
A casino in Lake George or Albany would be a “nightmare,” he said, adding that he favors keeping casinos at racetracks.
Assemblyman Tony Jordan, R-Greenwich, who represents Saratoga Springs, said he wants to make sure any legislation includes continued support for the harness and thoroughbred racing industries.
During his State of the State address, Cuomo mentioned having large national casino operators bid for gaming rights. Operators would be selected by a new state Gaming Commission appointed by the governor.
“That does not sound like locating them where we have racinos,” Jordan said.
The Gaming Commission, whose members haven’t yet been announced, will have regulatory powers over all racing and gaming in the state.
John Van Lindt, a former state Racing & Wagering Board chairman, said, “I don’t think they’ll confine themselves to racetracks. I think they’ll look at areas that need some kind of economic shot in the arm.”
At present, the harness and thoroughbred industries get a share of all racetrack casino revenues. If non-racetrack casinos are approved, that might change and business at racetrack casinos might decline as the gambling pie is sliced into more pieces.
“That’s called free enterprise,” Van Lindt said. “Racing was built in the U.S. on one premise — gambling. The more gambling opportunities you allow, the more you spread out the amount of money to be gambled.”
If Saratoga Casino & Raceway is one of the three upstate sites chosen, new features would include a 130-room hotel, event space, a new gaming floor and a parking garage. The expansion would add up to 400 jobs to the raceway’s current work force of about 625 full- and part-time employees whose pay and benefits total $20 million.
Raceway Chief Operating Officer Jamie Hartman has said, “We’re going to be shovel-ready.”
Construction would take about six months, meaning a new Saratoga casino could be completed sometime in 2014.
Assembly racing committee Chairman J. Gary Pretlow, D-Yonkers, said, “(Casinos) could be built anywhere that is beneficial to the state of New York.”
However, he said current racetrack casinos have an advantage over out-of-state firms eyeing new sites because they have existing facilities that could start producing more revenue for the state sooner. Even a large firm such as MGM would have to find and buy a site and go through extensive environmental reviews and a lengthy siting process before construction could begin, Pretlow said.
By not having to pay for such things, an existing casino could offer the state a higher bid price for one of the proposed sites, he said.
Also, Pretlow questioned why anyone, under Cuomo’s plan, would bid on one of the three sites without knowing where the other four casinos will be located. After one opens, another could follow a short distance away.
Vernon Downs minority owner Gary Greenberg said, “The Cuomo plan would take years to implement, with a bidding process and possible tie-ups with local governments, if non-racetrack sites are chosen. If there are three upstate casinos competing and separate from racinos, you can expect racinos all over the state to be crushed.”