In her first state of the city address last night, Saratoga Springs mayor Joanne Yepsen worked to bring divided parties together. The coming year will prove whether she succeeds.
Joanne Yepsen’s first State of the City address was delivered in a packed Saratoga Springs City Center. But two distinct colors stood out in the crowd, red and white – the colors associated with the opponents and supporters of expanding casino gambling in Saratoga Springs.
With the Saratoga Casino and Raceway pursuing a $30 million expansion and intending to apply for a full-sized casino license, a state-appointed casino siting panel still in formation, and a casino project RFP still to come, Yepsen acknowledged the need for more discussion between Albany and the casino industry in Saratoga Springs to determine how the impending arrival of a casino project in the Capital Region can best be handled to mitigate negative impacts.
“But until then, I remain very concerned about this issue, and I will continue to listen to all our citizens," said Yepsen. "But even though Albany and the Governor’s siting panel have the final determination, we can still try – we will do everything in our local power – to have our voices heard.”
Yepsen, a Democrat who won office in November, urged both Saratoga casino supporters and opponents to come together.
“But being this divisive and disingenuous will get us know where. And I implore all of you to talk to each other tonight in different colored shirts and find common ground, and think about how we can maximize the precious little input that we do have," said Yepsen.
Yepsen reaffirmed her stance against a Las Vegas-style casino, and said she seeks a solution that says “No” to an event space that could harm the City Center, to a ”colossal casino hotel” that could draw business from local hotels, or an “untold number” of restaurants and retail businesses that would harm downtown. She also said she supports a plan that benefits the city’s finances, supports jobs, and benefits harness racing.
Yepsen said she has asked horse trainers, breeders and riders to serve on a new City Racing Advisory Council to determine the effects of the state gaming law on the city’s horse racing industry.
Republican State Senator Kathy Marchione praised Yepsen’s desire to bring a divided community together on casino gambling, and reflected on Yepsen’s push for more community involvement in the siting process.
“I believe local zoning should be able to have a say,” said Marchione. “It’s our city and it’s difficult in situations like this. I know in school districts for example, it works the very same way – there isn’t local control and there should be.”
Marchione, who represents Rensselaer, and Saratoga Counties, both of which could be considered for casino development, said she will wait for the RFP before voicing her support for any particular project or location.
Dan Hogan, co-chair of the pro-casino Destination Saratoga group - the portion of the crowd wearing the white t-shirts - said he was pleased to see the new mayor welcome more conversation.
“I think the mayor is keeping an open mind about gaming in this city and I think that in and of itself is a victory for us,” said Hogan.
After her speech, Yepsen said her style of government will take a more collaborative approach.
“I was sure that even in this commission form of government we can build a collaborative government and we’re doing just that,” said Yepsen. “We can utilize the staff in city hall to be more effective and to feel even prouder about whay they’re doing. We can include local residents into boards and committees and initiatives and to make them feel proud about they’re doing to advance these initiatives in the city.”
Yepsen also announced the formation of a Business Advisory Council, and outlined an agenda on issues of open government, sustainability and comprehensive planning, and constituency service.