As voters prepare to accept or reject an amendment to the state constitution that would allow casino gaming in New York State, owners of large theaters are worrying that the proposed casinos will put them out of business. Instead of opposing the amendment, the UpState Theater Coalition for a Fair Game is in discussion with governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, urging that the performing arts centers (PACs) be allowed to take charge of booking entertainment at the casinos.
“Then we’ll be able to control our destiny, as opposed to waking up one day and seeing every artist we’ve made an offer to has gone to the casinos,” stated Chris Silva, executive director of Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston and the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie. Both theaters are members of the coalition, which represents eleven upstate PACs with $80 million in aggregate budgets and over 500 full-time employees.
Philip Morris, president of the Coalition and CEO of Proctors, a historic venue in Schenectady, said he worked to form the group after hearing of impacts to other theaters in western New York from the Indian casinos and in Connecticut and Long Island from Foxwoods. “We approached the governor’s office, and they went from being surprised there was an issue to ‘Oh my, I get it now.’ We’re happy that we’ve gotten a positive response from the governor’s office and the Gaming Commission.”
Silva said large theaters have experienced a drop in business of up to 25 percent in Hartford, Providence, New Haven and Boston after casinos provide steep competition for big-name performers. Casinos often book major acts, from Bob Dylan to Merle Haggard, at higher fees than theaters can afford. Exclusivity contracts prevent the stars from appearing elsewhere in a given region for anywhere from 90 days to a year surrounding the dates of scheduled gigs.
More is at stake is than the financial well-being of the theaters, said Silva. “Iconic artists pay for all the stuff that doesn’t pay — the classical music series, operas, educational programs, classic films, senior programs. Also Ballet Hispanico. Whatever cultural thing we’re presenting that has a hard time making it work financially is set off by Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.”
Citing the positive economic impact theaters have had on the downtown areas of Kingston and Poughkeepsie, he predicted that the areas will decline if the theaters are forced to fold.
Cuomo’s office has been receptive to the coalition’s requests, said Silva, and has strengthened the language of the referendum text to indicate support for the theaters. “Before, it said casinos would measure their impact on performing arts centers,” explained Silva. “Now, it says casinos will create a partnership with the PACs, looking out for our goals and mission programs.” He wants to go a step farther and have explicit regulations spelled out in the request for proposals (RFP) that will be part of the process of approving specific casinos if the referendum passes.
The measures recommended by the coalition include limiting casino entertainment facilities to no larger than 1000 seats; requiring partnership agreements between casino operators and theaters (that is, agreements that will give theaters the right to making booking decisions for casinos); prohibiting broad exclusivity for talent, who must rotate from casino facilities to theaters before returning to casinos; and requiring casinos to pay annual fees that would support local theaters and the state arts council.
Morris said taking over the casino booking would “allow performers to be managed, rather than having a continuous annual event at a casino by a performer without moving it into a broader community.” Although such an arrangement between casinos and theaters is currently being hammered out in Massachusetts, it has never been tried before. However, Morris expressed confidence that it would work.
Silva doesn’t see a problem with allowing theater management to book casinos. “They’re going to pay somebody to book their halls. I think they’ll read the RFP and say, We can do that. But it would have to be language in the RFP. Once a casino is selected, if we don’t get that in, they wouldn’t have to listen to us.”
Among the casino companies waiting for approval of the referendum and site selection is a group of investors hoping to establish a casino at the Nevele Resort south of Ellenville, where the village government welcomes the planned casino as a boon to the local economy.
Michael Treanor, CEO of Nevele Investors, said he had not heard of the coalition’s initiative and could not comment on the proposal. “All sorts of groups have an interest in what happens here,” he said, referring to hotels and restaurants that are apprehensive about competition from the casino. He said the gaming legislation introduced by state senator John J. Bonacic specifies that casino licenses should be awarded to operators with “plans to help local businesses to thrive with a resort casino in the neighborhood. They [the coalition] should add their voice to other local businesses. We’re committed to making it a win-win.”
An agreement containing measures similar to those proposed by the coalition is in the process of being hammered out in Massachusetts, said Silva.
Ulster County executive Mike Hein said he had met with Silva regarding the coalition’s proposal. “I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Hein remarked. “The issue is clearly something that needs to be addressed prior to any finalization of gaming plans. We understand the importance of protecting our talented cultural heritage in the face of potential large resort entertainment.”
“The casinos are an anchor for tours of big artists,” said Silva. “The casinos use them to lure customers. Dylan does play casinos. All of this year’s lineup do play casinos. If those casinos existed right now, and we had no agreement, we wouldn’t have gotten any of them.”