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Casino Controversy: Waiting for the Chips to Fall

On Election Day in November 2013, New York State voters approved Proposal 1, legislation that authorizes construction of seven casinos to be built throughout Upstate New York. Since that vote the Capital-Saratoga Region, which is guaranteed at least one casino, has been flush with talk of the potential sites of Las Vegas-style casinos, amidst outspoken opposition and support from local communities. Proposal 1 passed with 57% of New York State voters approving the legislation, however, Capital Region voters in Albany, Saratoga and Schenectady opposed it, according to New York State Board of Elections data. Rensselaer County was the largest county in the region to support the casino legislation, with 51% of voters in favor of the proposal. Potential locations for the Capital-Saratoga Region’s future casino span Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties, and include Thruway Exit 23 (locally referred to as “E23”) in Albany, at the former American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady, and at Thompson Hill Road in East Greenbush. Saratoga Springs (Saratoga County) walked away from the table after public outcry.

In April, East Greenbush’s town board unanimously approved “to allow for presentation of proposals,” according to town board minutes. Saratoga Casino and Raceway and Churchill Downs have announced their partnership on that casino project. They gave a presentation to the public on May 19 at Columbia High School in the East Greenbush Central School District. The meeting brought both criticism and support, with some residents relegated to overflow seating. The proposed casino in East Greenbush is a $300 million project that will offer slots and table games, restaurants, entertainment venues, meeting spaces and 300 hotel rooms, said Rita Cox, senior vice president of marketing for Saratoga Casino and Raceway. The endeavor will guarantee $5.7 million in revenue each year for the town and Rensselaer county, add 1,700 jobs for the two-year construction period, and 1,700 permanent jobs once the casino is operational, according to Ms. Cox.

But some residents are firmly opposed to the casino. Dwight Jenkins, an East Greenbush resident and co-founder of the Facebook group “No East Greenbush Casino,” an extension of Save East Greenbush, cites crime, traffic and decreased property value as his main concerns. He also criticized the town board for rushing this project along. “I don’t think they’ve given 10 minutes of real thought to the matter,” Mr. Jenkins said. Meanwhile, a number of businesses from the Capital Region have joined together in support of the casino, including CommSoft and Tech Valley Security in East Greenbush and Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe, which has stores in both North Greenbush and Colonie. “I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for Rensselaer County to have some additional business that can [alleviate] some of the tax base that’s put on the property owners,” said Scott Bendett, owner of Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe. He lives in Averill Park, located 20 minutes from East Greenbush. The day after Saratoga Casino and Raceway pitched their presentation to the town, the New York State Gaming Commission clarified language for approving a site for one of the casinos. It said: “The identities of the potential gaming facility applicants have now been established. Accordingly, the Board believes that for a Host Municipality resolution to be sufficient, such resolution should indicate support for the specific gaming facility within the jurisdiction of the Host Municipality.” This means that East Greenbush’s town board still needs to vote on whether a casino should be built at Thompson Hill Road. Sue Mangold, an East Greenbush town board member, said the Gaming Commission’s clarification was “absolutely necessary.” She defended the town board’s April vote, saying the vote has been “misunderstood and misreported” because its only intent was to move forward with hearing presentations from developers, and not to approve the development outright. East Greenbush has scheduled a town board hearing for tonight, which will include a presentation from the developer and public comment. Ms. Mangold said that she voted against Proposal 1 and is still undecided on whether or not to build a casino in East Greenbush. The town board could vote to approve the casino at its regularly scheduled June 18 meeting, she said. The developer’s application to the Gaming Commission is due June 30. Ms. Cox, of the Saratoga Casino and Raceway, believes this plan will go through and there will be a casino in East Greenbush after all. “Unlike a lot of the projects [applicants], we’re a local team,” she said. “I firmly believe we are the best location, with the greatest benefit for the region and for the community.” Meanwhile, the opposition continues to battle this casino; they aren’t folding yet. “You have to maintain that hope. You have to believe that this is still America,” Mr. Jenkins said.

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