Mayor Joanne Yepsen of Saratoga Springs has apparently decided she is powerless to prevent a full-scale casino from coming to the Spa. Yepsen was elected on the same day that 58 per cent of the city’s voters opposed casinos anywhere in the state of New York. The November vote was on a proposition to amend the State’s Constitution by permitting full-scale casinos on non-Indian land.
In her prepared State of the City address delivered Tuesday, Yepsen said:
But with the passage of Proposition #1 in New York State, we are at a crossroads, and we are at the mercy of the State. Our community and local elected officials are nervous about having little-to-no voice in this decision that rests between the Governor, his citing [sic] panel and the commercial operators….
In her inaugural address, Yepsen said: “Now that the referendum has passed, the question of whether we are for or against casino-style gambling is moot.”
Yepsen’s passivity is remarkable. A newly-elected executive is probably at the height of her influence soon after being elected. And if there was any mandate coming out of the Saratoga Springs vote, it is that voters overwhelming are opposed to a casino. More significantly, however, the state law implementing the constitutional amendment gives the Mayor and the city significant leverage over whether a casino can be sited within its boundary.
That legislation, enacted over the summer in anticipation of the proposition being approved, spells out what the state government must do before authorizing a license to a casino operator. There must be a competitive procurement by a Facility Location Board which then forwards its recommendations for up to four licenses located in upstate New York to the State Gaming Commission. As a condition of eligibility for just filing an application, however, “each potential license applicant must demonstrate to the board’s satisfaction that local support has been demonstrated.”
This law would seemingly put casino proponents in the weaker position. The experience in Massachusetts is that while voters there approved of the idea of a casino somewhere in the state, they generally opposed one in their own community if it is doing fine without one. Those favoring a casino must argue – against both intuition and common sense – that the 58 per cent opposed to the idea of a casino anywhere would nonetheless support one in their city.
The Mayor clearly favors siting a casino in Saratoga Springs. While she claims to have “precious little input” in the decision to locate one here, she attempts to become the negotiator who will achieve a “more moderate solution to prevent radical change to our City in the Country.” One might think that a successful negotiator does not begin the process by conceding she has little power to prevent the proponents from having their way, essentially conceding that a Spa casino is inevitable.
The Mayor is committed to preventing a “Las Vegas-style casino” from coming to Saratoga. The lead group opposing the casino is a grass roots effort called “Saratogians Against Vegas-style Expansion.” While this may lead to a catchy acronym – “SAVE Saratoga” – I think it has had the effect of tossing a softball to the casino proponents. If there is one thing all sides agree on, it is that Saratoga is no place for a “Vegas-style casino.”
Unfortunately it is a phrase that has no meaning. Is it poker, black jack and roulette being permitted? (It is not gambling on team sports since that is not authorized by the legislation.) Is it boxing title fights? Is it hookers and high-rollers flooding Saratoga? Is it a neon replica of the Eiffel Tower rising over Nelson Avenue? The proponents of the casino have stated their commitment to maintaining the character of Saratoga even if poker is now allowed on the premises of the VLT parlor at the harness track. There is no reason to doubt their word on this. The reality, however, is that once the license is awarded, there is simply nothing to prevent the feared parade-of-horribles from occurring since the license and property can be sold without any local input.
The Mayor has expressed opposition to a “massive event space,” and a “colossal casino hotel,” and an “untold number of restaurants and shops” from opening at the site. That means of course, she is amenable to all of those features provided they are not too large. Once you enter that negotiation, you have essentially lost any ability to oppose any casino from coming. If that is the Mayor’s position, that is fine – she is entitled to her own views even if they conflict with an overwhelming majority of her constituents. She should not, however, act as if she has no ability or power to advance the will of the majority.