POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 13, 2014
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. » With its rich history of horse racing and a 19th-century gambling parlor so opulent that it drew comparisons to Monte Carlo, this upstate enclave would seem to be a natural choice to receive one of the state's new full-scale casinos.
Yet what was once thought to be a fait accompli - that the casino designated for the capital region would wind up in Saratoga - is no longer a sure thing, and much of that is because of a coordinated resistance from many residents and business owners.
They acknowledge that the city's fortunes have long been intertwined with gambling. Even now, with its world-class thoroughbred track closed for the season, a smaller harness track attracts visitors the year round, thanks to its so-called racino, filled with slots-like video lottery terminals.
But they say that the city does not need or want a full-fledged casino.
"Why mess with a good thing?" said Colin Klepetar, a middle-school teacher who has helped organize against it. "This is already a world-class town."
The opposition stands in stark contrast to the support in areas like the Catskills and the state's Southern Tier counties along the northern border of Pennsylvania, where business and political leaders have long pushed for casinos to revitalize stagnant economies. Even in Saratoga, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first proposed expanding casino gambling as a solution to upstate economic woes, city and county officials enthusiastically endorsed the idea.
Cuomo pushed for a statewide referendum: The measure, which authorized as many as seven new casinos, was approved in November, with 57 percent of voters in favor. But it did not pass in Saratoga Springs or in Saratoga County.
"This community voted no by 57 percent and the county voted no by 54 percent," said Sara Boivin, an art historian who is a member of Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion, or SAVE, which has been lobbying local politicians and protesting against potential casino developers. "We just want that message to be taken by officials."
The group, which formed soon after the referendum, has canvassed neighborhoods, packed meetings with opponents and gathered more than 1,000 signatures on petitions urging leaders to reject a new casino. Similar opposition has also been seen in several communities in neighboring Massachusetts. Nonetheless, the uprising in Saratoga has caught some local officials off guard.
New York already has five Indian-run casinos, all of them upstate, and nine racinos at racetracks, including the successful one here - the Saratoga Casino and Raceway - which developers would like to see converted to a larger, full-scale operation.
Developers are finalizing plans in the Catskills, the Hudson Valley and the Southern Tier, where competitions for casinos have pitted neighboring towns or counties against one another. Other cities in the Capital Region recently approved pro-casino resolutions, including Rensselaer, the downtrodden city across the Hudson River from Albany.
The grass-roots anti-casino efforts recently caused casino supporters to begin a public relations push of their own. They say, in part, that if Saratoga does not allow a casino to be built here, it will be built nearby instead, damaging the town and the racing industry that the town supports.
"Now that the referendum has passed, the question of whether we are for or against casino-style gambling is moot," said Joanne Dittes Yepsen, a former county supervisor who took office as Saratoga's mayor this month. "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?"
Unlike Massachusetts, where a local vote is needed for casino owners to gain approval to build, New York has no provision requiring local voter approval. Instead, the state law has broader language that asks only that developers gain "public support in the host and nearby municipalities," something "which may be demonstrated through the passage of local laws or public comment."
No such vote is planned in Saratoga, a city of 27,000, but opponents think the Nov. 5 results should speak for themselves.
SAVE, the anti-casino group, says it fears that a bigger casino would drive up crime rates, drive down property values and generally ruin the city's small-town, big-money vibe. That appeal is evident: Saratoga has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state; a thriving downtown, stocked with boutiques and buskers, public art and $25 entrees; and residential areas dotted with colonnaded homes and lawns decorated with statuary. The city's north side is home to Skidmore College, another beloved local institution. To the east is Yaddo, the secluded artists' colony, and the city's western edge is home to an emerging arts scene.
The raceway is on the city's southern flank, not far from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the summer host of the New York City Ballet. Organizers there and at other arts organizations fear the competition for entertainment dollars from a new casino, which would most likely have hundreds of slot machines, dozens of table games, and entertainment and convention facilities.
But James Featherstonehaugh, an owner of the raceway who is also a prominent Albany lobbyist and president of a trade group representing racino owners, said none of that would change the character of the city.
"We don't want a Las Vegas-style casino in Saratoga either," Featherstonehaugh said. "We want a Saratoga-style casino."
Raceway executives made that point at a community forum in December that drew more than 1,000 people, including a Christmas-y mix of supporters (wearing green stickers reading "Save Racing/Save Jobs") and opponents (wearing red "Casi-NO!" T-shirts).
The forum included business owners who pressed the raceway officials on whether the new casino would discount drinks and hotel rooms, stay open 24 hours or otherwise draw business away from their establishments. Officials repeatedly said they wanted to be good neighbors, but also said their plans were still evolving. "There are too many unknowns right now," said Rita Cox, a spokeswoman for the track.
Mark Baker, president of the convention center, said he was concerned about a new casino "taking people's feet off the streets of downtown Saratoga," which was slowly rebuilt after hitting the skids in the 1950s and '60s. "We've worked decades to come back to this hallmark moment that the city's in right now," he said.
The city's popularity dates to the mid-1800s, when mineral baths drew weary urbanites north in search of peace, quiet and a good soak. A pair of horsemen - John Hunter and William R. Travers - in 1863 sponsored four days of racing on a small oval near downtown, and more gambling soon followed, including the Canfield Casino, a structure that now houses a city museum.
Over the decades, a parade of famous and infamous figures made their way to Saratoga to gamble or gambol, a list including the likes of Lillian Russell and Meyer Lansky. The city began a renaissance in the early 1970s, implementing a series of small improvements - repainted storefronts, newly planted trees - and broader changes that encouraged a vibrant downtown. Now the city hosts some of the world's richest horse racing fans for eight weeks every summer, a deluge of people and tourist dollars.
What will happen next remains to be seen. At her inauguration on Jan. 1 at the Canfield Casino, Yepsen echoed the sentiment that Saratoga shouldn't become Las Vegas. But the process continues: At his State of the State address last week, Cuomo laid out the process of casino selection, with bids due in June and construction likely to begin before the end of the year.
But at the same time, there are pockets of poverty and hard times, and the debate rages there, too. Just blocks off Broadway on a frigid recent Friday morning, a couple of men drank beer in the remains of a factory.
One of the men, Kevin Germaine, 55, who said he lives outdoors in a nearby park, didn't like the idea of a casino. "We already got one," he said.
Jesse McKinley, New York Times