A crowd of advocates and opponents packed into the Saratoga Springs City Center last night for a casino forum hosted by the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and Saratoga Convention and Tourism bureau.
An hour before The Saratoga Casino Forum began, people started streaming into in the City Center. Members of Destination Saratoga, the pro-casino group launched with money from the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, stepped out of buses waving signs and wearing buttons.
Meanwhile, volunteers with SAVE Saratoga, the anti-casino group, passed out hundreds of red T-shirts.
The room hosting the panel discussion was filled to capacity as one thousand community members took their seats.
The Saratoga Casino and Raceway is planning to apply for a full-size casino license after voters approved a state ballot measure in November. The Casino and Raceway staff fielded tough questions from panelists representing a cross-section of industries in Saratoga Springs.
Some downtown retail business and restaurant owners expressed concerns that casino-goers would not venture into the city upon the completion of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway’s $30 million expansion project, which will include a hotel, a restaurant and event space.
John Baker, owner of Gaffney’s Restaurant, asked Rita Cox of Saratoga Casino and Raceway if an expanded facility would cooperate with downtown bars and restaurants, even if it were permitted to serve food and alcohol 24/7.
Baker asked, "if the bars closed at one o'clock, would close at one o'clock?"
After pausing, Cox answered a simple, "yes."
Marcia White, Executive Director of Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and Mark Baker, President of the Saratoga City Center, commented that the Casino and Raceway’s plan to construct a 24,000 square foot event space would undercut and drive attendance away from established venues.
"The unrestricted and unrealistic growth of that multi-purpose event center, which I do not feel is needed to support the gaming tables, I believe, would put much of what we've accomplished at works.'
Rita Cox responded to Baker’s comment with an answer that was offered at various times throughout the night, saying that there are too many unknowns with how the a full-scale resort casino would be regulated to offer a detailed response.
"Until we know the details - and I know that's not what people want to hear, and it's not a cop out and I'm not hiding anything - until we have specificity in the requirements that are going to come in the RFA from the siting commission, there is little that we can offer in response to that," said Cox.
Panel member Robert Mcloughlin, an attorney and former director of the New York State lottery said it’s not yet clearly explained in New York’s casino statute what should be included to be considered a resort destination.
Rita Cox explained the Casino and Raceway considers both the city of Saratoga Springs and a full-scale casino to be destinations.
Representatives of Saratoga hotels were concerned that the casino’s plan to build a resort-style hotel, and the casino industry’s tendency to offer discounted hotel rooms could affect occupancy within city limits.
Representatives of the equine industry also expressed concerns about the expansion. They are seeking a close partnership between the Saratoga Casino and Raceway and the existing horse racing industry to ensure business is not drawn away.
Mickey McGovern of the Saratoga Harness Horeseman’s Association said that he was concerned if a casino opened elsewhere in the Capital Region it would pull revenues for purses and breeding programs away from the standardbred industry in Saratoga.
"If a casino facility is opened in Troy, or Albany, or Lake Goerge, we will not be able to maintain the viability of standardbred racing,' said McGovern.
Saratoga Casino and Raceway’s George “Skip” Carlson said that business that supports the equine industry would take a hit if a casino was opened out of town.
"We've estimated that it would cost our business 30 to 40 percent," said Carlson. "We would still continue as a viable entity, but at a reduced level."
Jim Maney, Executive director of the New York Council on Problem Gambling also offered his views saying that the state and the community need to establish more safeguards to prevent problem gambling and treatment programs, for not only increased gambling at the casino, but also for internet gambling.
"We have to do everything that we possibly can from a community-level to do what we call industry-wide 'responsible gambling'," said Maney. "And responsible gambling does not start at the racino, they will do they're fair share of what needs to be done. What also needs to be done is everybody else."
Members of the audience did not get the chance to ask live questions. They did submit questions over text messages and Twitter to the panelist, and were addressed at the conclusion of the program.