SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) – The coming expansion of Las Vegas-style casinos in New York puts Saratoga Springs on the short list to land a gambling palace, but many people here say they’re doing just fine, thank you, without one.
Unlike the economically stagnant Catskills and Southern Tier communities also in the running for casinos, the thriving Saratoga Springs area voted against last week’s statewide referendum.
Downtown is a bustling blend of shops, restaurants and bars. Hotels book a steady stream of convention-goers and summer visitors to its legendary thoroughbred race track. And new luxury condos ring a main drag that has maintained its Victorian charm, including a remnant from its colorful gambling past: Canfield Casino.
“We have a beautiful balance downtown and we don’t need another Atlantic City two miles from here sucking the life out of us,” said Paul O’Donnell, owner of Celtic Treasures, an Irish gift store on Broadway.
Some opponents are concerned a Las Vegas-style operation would draw bettors away from its biggest attraction: Saratoga Race Course, which attracts upward of 900,000 fans during its summer season and pumps millions of dollars into the region’s economy.
Others say a casino would pull in money that would otherwise be spent in downtown Saratoga, where many businesses still depend on a strong 40-day track season to get them through the rest of the year.
But Saratoga’s 27,000 residents can’t stop a casino. That’s because when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature crafted the law they refused to provide a local veto _ common in states like Massachusetts, where two communities rejected casinos last week.
The law does say casino operators seeking a license must win “public support in the host and nearby communities,” which could take the form of local laws, putting the question of support in the hands of elected officials, or through public comment.
Not only did Saratoga County voters reject the casino referendum by a 54-to-46 percent margin, but each of the surrounding counties _ Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Warren and Washington _ voted it down as well.
A few doors down from O’Donnell’s store, longtime restaurant owner Ray Morris says he shares some of his fellow business owners’ concerns, but voted in favor of casinos in the hope Saratoga will land one and get another economic boost.
“If a casino is bringing in 100,000 people into town and 10 percent come downtown, that’s 10,000 more people and you come out ahead,” said Morris, whose Lillian’s Restaurant has been a Broadway mainstay for nearly 40 years.
Saratoga Springs has a rich history with wagering that includes decades of illegal casino operations when Las Vegas was still an empty spot in the Nevada desert and Atlantic City had yet to build its first boardwalk.
“Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and more had interests in Saratoga Springs,” said James Parillo, director of the Saratoga Springs History Museum housed in the Canfield Casino, where Gilded Age robber barons and the social elite legally bet away fortunes before reformists got gambling banned at the start of the 20th century.
Underground casinos did brisk business from soon after the Canfield Casino’s demise until World War II, when the racetrack was shut down and the summertime crowds disappeared, but that era as a big-time casino town didn’t end well. U.S. Senate hearings into organized crime in the early 1950s turned the national spotlight on the city.
Saratoga’s political and business leaders came under scrutiny from federal and state authorities who accused them of allowing the likes of Lansky to operate illegal casinos in exchange for hefty bribes.
The mob eventually abandoned Saratoga and it would be several decades until the Spa City began its turnaround, centered on an expanded racing season and efforts to bring in more conventions year-round.
“We’re known as a four-season vacation destination,” said O’Donnell, whose store benefits from the busy conference center a block away. “I don’t think a full-blown casino is going to enhance us one bit.”
Down the street from Saratoga Race Course, the Saratoga Casino & Raceway harness track has one of the most successful of the state’s nine video gambling “racinos.” It’s the likely front-runner in the Saratoga-Albany area for landing one of the four full-scale casinos that will be allowed upstate.
James Featherstonhaugh, an influential Albany lobbyist, is part owner of the year-round Saratoga racino, which opened a decade ago. He is also president of the New York Gaming Association, which advocated for passage of the referendum.
Earlier this year, the racino announced plans to break ground in 2014 on a $30 million expansion that will include a 120-room hotel, restaurant and an event venue likely to host conventions.
Racino spokeswoman Rita Cox said those plans are moving forward. The expanded racino will add 300 new jobs, and she said a full-scale casino would be expected to add at least an equal number.
Associated Press writer Michael Gormley contributed to this report from Albany.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)