Harness Track Backs Off Saratoga Casino Plan

Facing community and local government opposition, backers of a long-planned full-scale casino at Saratoga Springs' harness track have retreated on the idea, instead focusing on a new site near Albany, N.Y.
The salesmanship problems for expanding the track's existing VLT-only facility to a Las Vegas-style casino with real slots and table games became clear last November during a statewide referendum that led to the legalization of seven new casinos in the state, including one in the Saratoga/Albany region. But 57% of residents in Saratoga Springs voted against that referendum, and a grassroots effort spread to eventually include the City Council, which recently voted unanimously to oppose an expanded casino in the city.
The owners of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway were among the loudest proponents the past several years of a casino expansion effort in New York, and many lawmakers and lobbyists had assumed the track would end up getting one of the first four licenses the state plans to award this year for full-scale casinos. At a December forum in Saratoga, though, the track's executives came under siege as they heard with criticism and question after question by residents and local business groups about the casino plan's effect on the downtown area and - as far as upstate cities go - its economic vitality.
Word of the retrenchment April 21 came just two days before all potential bidders must cut a $1 million check to the state in order to attend a mandatory bidders' conference on April 30; bidders can still get much or all of the $1 million back if they end up not submitting a final Request For Application for casino plans when they are due to the state Gaming Commission on June 30.
James Featherstonhaugh, an Albany lobbyist and minority owner of the Saratoga track and racino, had been the voice of the project for the past couple of years at the state Capitol in pushing the idea with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration and lawmakers. Featherstonhaugh did not return calls for comment April 21.
The racino was not answering questions, but released a brief statement: "Saratoga Casino and Raceway intends to pursue a bid for a destination casino license in East Greenbush. We will also continue to operate our successful facility in Saratoga and look forward to maintaining our strong partnerships within this community."
A site, actually located within the city of Rensselaer, which sits along the Hudson River across from downtown Albany, has been scouted by at least a couple of would-be casino developers.
Until the state recently released a Request For Application for casino plans, the Cuomo administration and lawmakers were vague about precisely what was meant by developers having to show local support for casino projects. The RFA, though, specifically cited approval by local city, town or county elected officials.
The Saratoga casino expansion plan ran into opposition from some hotels, restaurants and retailers, as well as homeowners. The racino operators spent the last several months seeking to allay concerns, but momentum against the plan only seemed to heighten as the RFA filing deadline approaches.
The plan also ran into opposition from some in the Thoroughbred community. 
"Since the local population and local elected officials were vociferously against the full-fledged casino and since the existence of a full-fledge casino proximate to Saratoga Racetrack would likely be a negative in terms of traffic, attendance and the success of the Saratoga meet, I'm pleased with the outcome," Barry Ostrager, president of the New York Throughbred Breeders Inc., said after word of abandonment of the Saratoga plan by the harness track.
The state this year is expected to select the first of four new casino developments. The first round is limited to three geographic areas of the state: Albany/Saratoga region, part of the southern tier near Binghamton extending along a narrow slice of land as far north as Lake Ontario east of Rochester, and an area that includes the Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley counties. When and where the final three casinos might be located is uncertain, though New York City, for instance, would be banned from getting a casino -- with some legal loopholes -- for seven years after a casino license is awarded to future upstate facilities.
Given that a considerable portion of the existing Saratoga racino's clientele comes from the greater Albany and Saratoga areas, there is little doubt a casino located elsewhere in that region will draw traffic away from the racino. A group led by a Rochester developer and the Capital District Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., a public entity owned by counties and cities in a large area of the state, recently proposed a casino resort to be located adjacent to a Thruway exit in Albany.

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