A group of Bethlehem activists are speaking out in opposition of a casino proposed for Exit 23 in the City of Albany.
The group, named Bethlehem Community Voices, spoke at the Bethlehem Town Board meeting on Wednesday, May 14. Members said they are opposed to any casino proposed for the Capital District, and the group has aligned itself with Occupy Albany and other casino opposition groups in the area.
“We started this effort about three weeks ago, right after the announcement of the proposal,” said Pam Skripak, a founding member of Bethlehem Community Voices. “I sent an e-mail to about 400 people to see who else was concerned and have been circulating petitions.”
Skripak said the group first came together four years ago to speak out against the sale of Normanside Country Club but has been inactive since that time. She still had the e-mail list, so she used it to reach out to others in the community. It was eventually decided the group should change its name.
“This isn’t just about the casino,” said Skripak. “We wanted to start a group that could be involved in various other community matters and wanted a name to reflect that. This is the first project of our newly formed group.”
A petition circulating the town now has about 400 signatures of residents opposed to the Exit 23 casino. Two other online petitions have been created through change.org, one for residents of Bethlehem and a second for residents of Albany County.
Members of the group said their main concern is that the local economy will not benefit as much as developers have said. Skripak said other communities where casinos are developed have typically seen a bump to the economy in the beginning, but it then starts to wane.
The proposed casino would be built on 60 acres of land off Noonan Lane in Albany. The plans call for a 63,000-square-foot gaming floor, a 275-room hotel, a 40,000-square-foot water park, restaurants, an indoor horse-riding facility and trails.
The project is being developed by Flaum Management, LLC, and the Capital District Regional Off-Track Betting Corporation. According to the developers, the project is expected to bring 1,800 permanent jobs and 1,500 construction jobs. It will also provide an annual hosting fee of $11.5 million to be split between the city and county, an estimated $5 million in property taxes for the city, $2 million for scholarships and social programs, as well as funds to the county through sales and hotel taxes.
At a Bethlehem Town Board meeting in April, the majority of people who shared their opinions about the casino were opposed to the project, but some thought it would be good for local businesses.
Skripak said she felt the area would soon be oversaturated with the number of casinos proposed and gambling establishments already in existence nearby in Saratoga, Verona and Springfield. She said this would mean the casino would not be visited by people coming from out of town, but people already living in the area.
Skripak questioned the rationale behind the formation of the E23 Business Alliance, which includes a number of prominent local businesses in Albany County.
“People only have a finite amount of money, and if it’s spent at the casino, it won’t be spent at local businesses,” Skripak said.
Bethlehem resident Jeff Sperber, president and CEO of Huck Finn, Inc. and chairman of the business alliance, said the group is primarily interested in making sure local business owners’ voices are heard as the casino process moves forward.
“We’re not a group speaking for or against casinos,” said Sperber. “We’re just working with the developer to make sure our concerns are addressed.”
The business alliance began with an open invitation meeting for business owners, with about 20 people attending. Those at the meeting were then asked to speak to other business owners they were friends with to see if they wanted to come aboard. Sperber said the E23 proposal was one of the few projects where developers reached out to the business community and “offered them a seat at the table” to discuss their concerns and offer up ideas.
“There’s going to be a casino somewhere in the Capital District, and there’s no getting around that,” said Sperber. “The concerns will still be there no matter what site is chosen, but if it’s in Albany, we’ll have some say where the money goes.”
Sperber said he believes that if a location like East Greenbush is selected, local residents may still flock there, but then any money for gambling addiction, scholarships or property relief will be lost to another community.
Skripak countered the creation of any casino in a local community would bring a variety of challenges for the entire area, including an increase in crime and the creation of businesses some may not want, like pawn shops.
“We don’t want to pit one town against the other,” she said. “We don’t want one anywhere.”
Marv Sontz, owner of Del Lanes in Bethlehem and a member of the business alliance, said he does still have concerns about the E23 proposal.
“I support it, depending on what goes in it,” Sontz said. “It’s hard to say if it will be a plus or minus to the area, and I think traffic flow will be a major issue. It’s also hard to say how it will affect my business.”
Sontz said he’s 90 percent in favor of the proposal, but he wants to know what restaurants will be included and what kind of jobs it will bring. He said the casino could help business, depending on the groups who visit or if any conventions can be held at the hotel. He said certain groups may want to visit the casino and then may take a break to bowl.
Dave Hostig, another business alliance member who operates Normanside Country Club, said the casino would improve land that currently doesn’t provide a draw for new customers. He agreed the casino may drive away perspective business because of the new restaurants, but some visitors may want to explore the nearby towns. Like Sontz, he also felt some may take a break to play a round of golf.
“People have to look at this with an open mind,” said Hostig. “They’re trying to make this a destination and a nice place to go. It’s a form of entertainment, not greed.”
Skripak said Bethlehem Community Voices wants the town board to issue a referendum against the casino at a future meeting.
“I think it would send a strong message that would reflect the feelings of the area’s general population,” she said.
Town Supervisor John Clarkson submitted a traffic study to developers in April after residents spoke out against the casino’s proposed location. He said traffic wasn’t the only issue — the town also plans to study the casino’s social, criminal justice and economic impacts — but the traffic study was already on hand.
Clarkson said the town board is holding an informal meeting on Wednesday, May 28, with a presentation from the developer. He said the board might issue a referendum that night, depending on what the feeling is of the other members.
“We haven’t taken a position yet, but we likely will,” said Clarkson. “Our first step is to hold the public meeting so everyone is given a chance to speak.”
Bethlehem Community Voices is co-hosting a casino opposition event on Thursday, May 22, at 6:45 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany. The event will feature a lecture by former Congressman Bob Steele of Connecticut, author of “The Curse: Big-Time Gambling’s Seduction of a Small New England Town.”
E23 Business Alliance Members
• Huck Finn, Inc. – Jeff Sperber
• Mazzone Hospitality – Angelo Mazzone
• Precision Fitness – Lena Hart
• M&T Bank – Michael Whalen
• Sano-Rubin Construction Services LLC – David J. Hollander
• Bombers Burrito Bar, Inc., Wolff’s Biergarten – Matt Baumgartner
• Apropos Prom & Bridal – Sindi Saita
• Colonie Chamber of Commerce – Tom Nolte
• Jack’s Oyster House – Brad Rosenstein
• Yono’s Restaurant – Dominick Purnomo
• Beff’s Restaurant – Mickey Blanchfield
• Callanan Industries, LLC – Steve Benton
• Starlight Stables, LLC. – Don Lucarelli
• Albany City Rocks – Jim Hart
• Pursche Kaplan Sterling Investments – Pete Purcell
• Valente Gravel, Inc. – Roddy Valente
• Ideal/Allied Movers – Mark Geddes
• Security Integrations – Joe Masciocco
• Young Broadcasting of Albany, Inc. – Andy Alford
• Lamar Industries – Matt Duddy
• H&V Collision Centers, Inc. – Vartan Jerian, Jr.
• Crisafulli Associates, Inc. – Michael Crisafulli
• State Farm Insurance – Jane Hans
• Able Glass and Doors, Inc. – Thomas Wittemann
• RM Bacon /Rockmaple Farm – Mike Bacon
• Bacon Rentals – Mike Bacon
• Triple A Roofing – Joe Morrell
• Sign Studio – Ron Lebect
• Contessa Racing – Gary Contessa
• Rayben Maintenance & Cleaning – Raymond Walker
• Maloney Plumbing – Pat Maloney
• TL Metzger & Associates – Tracy Metzger
• Prudential Manor Homes – Jay Christiana
• Taysha Florist – Mark Carter
• Norvest Financial Services – William Wasserbach
• Passero Associates – Dave Tailon
• Del Lanes – Marv Sontz
• Normanside Country Club – Dave Hostig
• Connolly’s Diamond Gallery – Dennis Connolly
• Emco Construction – Michael Neff