The Groundwire is The Lightning Rod’s editorial page.
Monday, March 17, 2014 by The Editorial Board
The casino debate in Saratoga Springs, as has been the subject of lengthy public comment periods at recent city council meetings, appears from the outside to now be between a group that is concerned about having a full casino in Saratoga Springs and a group that is concerned about having a full casino in the next county over. As Mayor Joanne Yepsen put it, a speaking to the New York Times, “There is a new question that needs to be answered: Will Saratoga Springs be hurt more if the casino is placed in a nearby municipality or within the city itself?”
The fact that this is now the question now being asked highlights how flawed the casino law is. It exempts the casino from local zoning processes, including the city’s Comprehensive Plan and, unlike laws in other states, has no provision for the rejection of a casino by local residents. The other two regions targeted for casinos, the Central Southern Tier and Catskills, actually voted for the amendment: Sullivan, Tioga, and Broome counties had some of the highest support margins in the state, with over three-quarters of Sullivan County voters voting yes, according to the New York State Board of Elections. The Times notes that the stagnant economies of the downstate regions have fueled support there. Saratoga Springs, on the other hand, saw 55 percent of voters reject the proposal.
The truth is that the largest problems, of many that a destination casino will bring, are not with law enforcement and crime, nor are they with the horse racing industry. Rather, the biggest issue with turning the Saratoga Casino and Raceway into a full-scale destination casino is the effect it will have on the vibrance and quality of life of the city as a whole, in particular downtown Saratoga Springs. A casino with enough amenities to keep visitors south of Crescent Street—a casino makes more money by retaining its visitors—would surely have disastrous consequences for downtown, and that’s enough for it to be disastrous for the city as a whole.
That being said, the position supported by the pro-casino group, Destination Saratoga, that allowing what they call a “modest” (or as some would say, “Saratoga-style”) expansion of the Casino and Raceway would be better than letting an out-of-state developer build a Las Vegas-style venue somewhere else in the Capital Region, has a grain of truth to it. Destination Saratoga points out that the expansion would add 600 to 700 full-time jobs. Alternatively, the current undoubtedly positive economic impact of the Racino, including the $1.8 million in revenue the city gets for hosting the video lottery terminal casino, would likely be lessened if there was local competition, especially from a full-scale casino. After all, wouldn’t a resort casino 30 minutes away also compete with Saratoga Springs?
That’s where the validity of their arguments ends. While they point out the local tax relief benefit of expanded gambling, Saratoga Springs already has the lowest combined city, county, and school taxes of any city in New York State, except for Rye in Westchester County, based on Comptroller’s Office data from 2012, the most recent available. The casino law is intended to help struggling communities. Saratoga is not struggling in any sense of the word, and that’s far from being due solely to the racino. Destination Saratoga assures us without noting a source that the expansions at Saratoga Casino and Raceway would be “incremental and measured.” Whether or not this is true could have a major impact on the casino’s effect. We can’t know for sure until the Request for Applications, the edict from the state government that determines exactly what an ideal full casino will look like, is released later this month.
The Saratoga Springs city council recently introduced a resolution on the matter that gave a well-informed six-point summary of the reasons behind city council’s opposition—at this point—to a resort casino. The resolution was passed unanimously and with support from both opposing groups SAVE and Destination Saratoga, but they couldn’t agree on what it meant. “Destination Saratoga applauds [the city council] for passing a resolution that is exactly what we’ve been calling for throughout this debate: reserving judgment on expanded gaming at Saratoga Casino and Raceway until the state’s request for applications is released and the details of the casino’s bid are finalized,” said co-chair Dan Hogan in his group’s news release. He went on to agree that a Las Vegas-style casino has no place in the city. The SAVE news release, from co-founder Colin Klepetar, directly contradicted Destination Saratoga’s. “We are pleased to see that the Council did not decide to wait for the RFA. It shows they understand the RFA will hold no surprises and they have presented a united front against the Casino,” Klepetar said.
Of course, local support (or in Saratoga’s case, non-support, albeit by a fairly slim margin) will have only 20 percent weight in the siting decision, as per Section 1320 of the state Racing, Wagering and Breeding Law, one of the sections enacted by the referendum. However, if the state adheres to the criteria set forth in the law, it looks like Saratoga will lose as well in the 70 percent of the siting evaluation that constitutes “economic activity and business development factors,” which include maximizing job growth and providing “a variety of quality amenities to be included as part of the gaming facility.” Both of these would be better accomplished by a resort-style casino, not the modest expansion that Destination Saratoga claims the Casino and Raceway would undertake.
All in all, the casino is not a good idea for Saratoga Springs, and neither was the casino law. However, if the state siting board stays true to the law and its intent, and does what is best for the people of New York, Saratoga won’t have to worry about a casino.
View Districts by Prop 1 votes in a larger map
Download Excel spreadsheet of map data (view online)
View BOE source data
This map shows that the four Saratoga Springs districts voting yes for the casino proposition were located in the southern part of the city. District 14, near the Racino, had the highest margin of support. Lightning Rod map