The Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing has rejected the state’s plan for re-privatization of the New York Racing Association.
NYRA is the group that operates Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct, the three main thoroughbred horse racing tracks in the state.
According to the local group, the plan now being circulated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that seeks to retain public control of NYRA and unilaterally transfer funds legally designated for the state’s thoroughbred racing industry into the state’s general fund.
Four years ago, Cuomo “promised to return NYRA to a nonprofit corporation in three years,” Concerned Citizens said in a statement. “He did not keep that promise last year. This year, his plan is another means by which he is seeking to exert his control over NYRA and the future of our state’s thoroughbred racing industry.”
The group, which recently elected Maureen Lewi as its chairwoman, said the governor’s proposal will:
• Allow the governor to appoint one-third of the members to the new NYRA board of directors or five of the 15 members.
• With one member also appointed by the Senate and Assembly, there would be at least 7 of the 15 members appointed directly by our state government;
• The governor would also appoint the new chair of the board of directors.
• Transfer VLT funds away from NYRA that were previously designed for Capital improvements at Belmont, Aqueduct and the Saratoga Race Course as well as funds for NYRA operations.
• Provide sweeping new powers to various public agencies expanding their role from oversight to protect the public good, to empowering these agencies to be able to manipulate NYRA's budget and operations.
"We are vehemently opposed to the transfer of funds legally designated via prior agreements to support our state's thoroughbred racing industry into the state's general fund," the local group said. "This change ignores the fact that New York state was given $1 billion in real estate at NYRA's three tracks in return for the granting of a 25-year franchise agreement and a legislatively-approved revenue sharing formula from the VLT at Aqueduct. The VLT revenues are like mortgage payments for the land. If they can change the agreement this year, they will change it next year too."
Concerned Citizens added, "the Saratoga Race Course is the oldest sporting venue in the United States and the transfer of funds away from NYRA as proposed by the governor could harm our plans to improve this facility so that it succeeds for another 150 years."
The group said it appreciates the efforts of Saratoga's local legislators working collaboratively with the Capital Region's delegation and the chairs of the Assembly and Senate Racing Committees to re-privatize NYRA as a nonprofit corporation. "They clearly want to keep this promise before the legislative session ends this June. We hope that they will provide a clean stand-alone bill for the governor to sign."
Lewi was elected the chairwoman of the Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing by the members of the committee as well as the board of directors of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
The Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing was formed in 2004 under the auspices of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce as a means to organize the community to advocate in Albany for or against initiatives involving the Saratoga Race Course.
Lewi is the first volunteer to serve in the role of chairwoman of the Concerned Citizens of Saratoga Racing as the organization takes a role in advocating for the reprivatization of NYRA as a nonprofit corporation before the end of the 2016 Legislative session.
Lewi was a partner, with her husband Ed, in the public relations firm Ed Lewi Associates for 35 years before selling the company in 2010. The firm's clients included the NYRA, the Great Escape, Price Chopper Supermarkets, the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, and more. The firm also owned and ran consumer shows and produced ceremonial events.
She also served as the chairwoman of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce's board of directors in 2003.
"It is imperative that stand-alone legislation be passed this year to reconstitute NYRA as a not-for-profit corporation as was agreed upon and approved by New York state and NYRA four years ago," said Lewi. "We've sent a formal letter to Gov. Cuomo asking for his support of the plan approved by the NYRA board of directors last month."
In a letter sent to the governor in May, the group endorsed a NYRA board reorganization plan that offered shared governance with four members of the new board being appointed by the state's elected leaders and 10 members by the current NYRA executive board.
Members of the Concerned Citizens for Saratoga Racing signing the letter included Lewi, John Hendrickson, Charles Wait, Joe Torani, Cindy Hollowood, Tom Roohan, Dr. William Wilmot, Jack Knowlton, Todd Shimkus along with other notable local business leaders.
"Maureen Lewi is an amazing ambassador for the Saratoga Race Course and she is well respected because of her great work as a partner with Ed Lewi Associates by everyone involved in Thoroughbred Racing locally and around the country," said Matt Jones, chairman of the Chamber board of directors. "For the past four decades, Maureen has helped to create one of the most successful and best attended race meetings in the world. Our board of directors could think of no better person to lead this committee at this important time as we seek to secure a new governing structure for NYRA in partnership with New York state's elected leaders that will preserve and protect the Saratoga Race Course and New York's thoroughbred horse racing industry for the next four decades."