Roll of the dice

Every month, and often several times per month, groups of senior citizens from Fulton and Montgomery counties travel on bus trips to gambling casinos, usually located on Indian reservations.

Local resident Carol Demarest and her husband frequent the seniors trips. They also go on trips by themselves without a group.

“We go about once a month on the senior trip and usually once ourselves. Now we’re down to only about twice a month,”?she said.

She said she’s not sure whether casinos in the Capital Region would be a good idea, but if one is built, she’ll probably go to it.

“Most likely because I’m a senior and I have a bad back and trouble walking, plus the price of gas,” she said.

Demarest may get her chance, if on Nov. 5 voters across the state vote to approve the Upstate N.Y. Gaming Economic Development Act, which would authorize private investors to build casinos in several regions, including somewhere in the “Capital District-Saratoga area,” which includes the counties of Fulton, Montgomery, Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie and Washington.

Gloversville 3rd Ward Supervisor Michael F. Gendron, chairman of the county economic development committee, said he understands the moral qualms some people have about gambling, but he thinks gambling has become a cottage industry in New York state. If the casino referendum is approved by voters, Gendron would prefer it be built locally.

“I think we have enough property to host a casino,” Gendron said. “I have a slight concern that there may be too many casinos statewide, however, if people are jumping over the border to go to a casino, then I think we should try to keep the revenue in New York state. “

Stu Loeser, a spokesman for NY Jobs Now, a coalition of labor, political and business leaders supporting the ballot measure, said New Yorkers now spend $1.2 billion each year at full-service casinos outside New York – from Atlantic City to Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

The Nov. 5 proposition would amend the state constitution to allow up to seven casinos with live dealers to be built off Indian lands, in an attempt to capture more of the money New Yorkers spend on gambling. The amendment would allow two casino resorts to be built in the Catskills, another along the Pennsylvania border, and one in the Capital Region, with more following years later.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has argued that expanding the gambling industry is a good way to create jobs upstate and provide the additional $1 billion in revenue the state needs to pay for tax cuts and state aid to local schools.

The proposal would break down the tax revenues from the casinos in this way:

80 percent of the state’s tax revenue would be used for statewide elementary and secondary education aid and property tax relief.

10 percent would be split between the host municipality and the host county.

10 percent of the state’s tax revenues would go to the other counties in the region that don’t host the casino.

As non-host counties, Fulton County is expected to receive $1.6 million in additional state aid, and Montgomery County would receive $1.4 million, according to estimates from the New York State Division of the Budget.

Gendron said the formula does not favor the non-host counties, which is why “Fulton County will be putting its best foot forward” to encourage the casino franchise be placed locally.

The casino referendum, if approved by voters, would require the State Gaming Commission to appoint a siting board of individuals with expertise in finance and development. This board would review the applications to build a gaming resort in each region and select from among them.

The gaming board would then be required by the Gaming Economic Development Act to base 70 percent of the decision on where to allow a casino to be built on “economic activity and business development factors,” 20 percent on “local impact and siting factors” and 10 percent on “workforce factors,” according to a news release from Cuomo’s office.

Ken Rose, chief executive officer of the Montgomery County Business Development Center, said it will be extremely important that politicians on the local level work with their state representatives in order to influence where the casino is placed.

“We’re behind the scenes exploring that issue now and preparing for the event that voters do approve this. We’re going to make a play on it as a region, meaning us and Fulton County,” he said. “Because that’s what it would take, it would take your lobbying firm, it would take that type of political clout. That’s why we’re better suited to go after it as a two-county region. Alone, each of the counties has about 50,000 people, but together, we’ve got over 100,000, and that means a lot more political will power.”

Rose said the cost of actually constructing a casino would likely be the same throughout the Capital Region, but where Fulton and Montgomery counties might have an advantage over some of the other areas is in the price of local real estate.

“It’s the land costs that have a big difference,” he said. “We believe there’s land up around the Exit 27 interchange area that would potentially be a good location for something like this.”

Not everyone favors the casino proposition. A Siena College poll released last week showed 56 percent of the respondents say they would vote yes after they read the measure that will be on the Nov. 5 ballot, compared to 40 percent who would vote no.

Critics have claimed the wording of the ballot improperly crosses over into advocacy because it promises jobs, more school aid and lower taxes. The poll finds generic support for a casino amendment at 49 percent, seven points lower than when people were read the ballot measure.

Siena’s telephone poll of 822 registered voters was conducted Oct. 14 through 16. It has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

At a recent debate over the issue, David Blankenhorn, head of the Institute for American Values, a New York City think tank, said more casinos would simply exploit vulnerable people – some addicted to gambling, others spending money they don’t have.

It’s wrong to fund government services “off the backs of gamblers,” he said.

The Upstate NY Arts and Entertainment Venues, a coalition of venues including the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and Proctors in Schenectady, has asked the state for help protecting their ability to attract acts and audiences if the casino referendum is passed.

Marcia White, executive director of the not-for-profit Saratoga Performing Arts Center, said she’s concerned deep-pocketed gambling facilities could outbid smaller venues for entertainers who would then be off the local market because of exclusivity contracts.

“If they book Bruce Springsteen, we wouldn’t have that opportunity for several months or up to a year,” said White, whose Saratoga Springs venue can hold an audience of 25,000.

In addition to some agreement on exclusivity, the group is also asking for a 1,000-seat limit on casino theaters and limits on their future expansion.

Richard Samrov, executive director of the Glove Performing Arts Center, said he doesn’t know how a nearby casino might affect the Glove. He said his theater mostly relies on local actors, but occasionally, it brings in some out-of-town performers.

“I don’t know how it might affect our programming. We’re a very small venue. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,”?he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.