By Susan E. Campbell
A forum in Lake George last month on the possibility of casino gambling in the area drew some 250 people, “the largest turnout I have ever been involved with in this county,” said Lake George Mayor Robert Blais, who presided over the meeting at the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center.
After two hours of exchanging opinions, research data and questions, ballots were distributed. Attendees checked if they were residents, business owners or both, and cast their opinion secretly on the way out of the meeting, Blais said.
“There were 105 in favor, 52 against and 18 undecided,” said the mayor. He admitted he was surprised at some of the ballot results.
“The great majority of businesspeople were for the casino, and 45 of the 52 voting against were Lake George residents,” he said. “Yet in total, there were as many residents voting for a casino in the community as against.”
Last year, the state Legislature approved an amendment to the state Constitution that would legalize public casinos and officials have been eyeing up to seven new sites in the state. Where those sites will be is being negotiated by lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor said he wants at least one in upstate New York.
The amendment is expected to go before New York voters in November. But lawmakers want to decide on the locations first, before putting the proposed change out to the voters.
A possible location in Warren County has not been announced. But the Mayor said the owners of Roaring Brook Ranch and Tennis Resort in Lake George have made it known for some time that they would be interested.
There is also strong interest in Saratoga County in having a casino.
Roaring Brook Ranch sits on about 400 acres on Route 9N, with infrastructure in place and plenty of room for parking the six or seven thousand cars making the casino their destination.
“Those who favor having a casino believe Roaring Brook is a very acceptable location,” the mayor said. “It’s off Exit 21 of the Northway, not smack in the middle on Route 9, and there would be no impact on traffic in the village.”
“Full blown” casino projects typically build restaurants and one or two hotels and “aren’t just for gambling,” Blais said. These projects can also include arenas for shows, live music, theater, and sporting events.
Blais said he was not initially a fan of the idea. Crime could increase, reports the FBI. And there is evidence that bankruptcies rise in areas around casinos because gambling is so readily available.
But the mayor said he now has a more balanced view.
“Casinos pay tax on revenues to the host town and support the local school district,” he said.
Early in his administration, Cuomo set up a committee to propose up to seven sites for gambling casinos off Indian lands throughout New York with the long-term goal of creating jobs and boosting the state’s economy.
“Warren County is a prime candidate because of the fact that we have a seasonal tourist business and unemployment goes up during the off season,” said Blais. Several Lake George businesses have to be shuttered over the winter months after the tourist population has headed home. But a casino would bring patrons into Warren County all year round, officials say.
One of the 30 attendees who spoke up at the forum is a SUNY Adirondack professor who has taught marketing for 24 years, said the mayor. This educator said that graduating college students often have to leave the area to find suitable employment. Jobs created by a casino and businesses that may spring up to support a casino project may help alleviate that situation.
Blais said Schenectady County Community College is starting a course on management of gambling casinos and that job opportunities for students are bright. He shared the statistic that casinos employ about 2,000 people who earn an average of $55,000 per year, which is “another tremendous economic advantage,” he said.
He also reported that the owner of one of the largest businesses in Lake George, Bill Dow of the Lake George Steamboat Company, spoke in favor of a casino. Dow has years of experience working with his own casino employees in New Orleans.
Lake George is not targeted to become the next Atlantic City and “it need never be known as a gambling town at all,” said the mayor. Lake George residents don’t want that kind of reputation, and neither does he. Some fear that families who have visited Lake George for many years may not want to come back to a community that offers gambling, he said.
“There are many unknowns right now, but we do know the train is coming and we need to get on it,” he said. “It is making six stops around New York and we’re waiting at the station.”