Nassau County may have hit it big with the video lottery terminal deal at Aqueduct Racetrack, and if the cards are played right, many nice jackpots could result.
For years, Nassau County and its off-track betting corporation have been fighting to site video lottery terminals, what most of us call slots. First, they fought for state approval, and were finally granted the right to host 1,000 machines in 2013. Then they fought to site the VLTs — and quickly sank into the morass of opposition from angry residents and local politicians.
The fumbling of the siting by Nassau’s elected officials and the battling within the county GOP stalled the project and almost sank it.
First, a proposed location in Westbury was annihilated by community pressure. Then there was talk of the Hub in Uniondale, the Five Towns and finally Belmont Park. That last proposal both riled local residents and got tied up in politics. Now, after secret negotiations and extensive work by state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Old Westbury) and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, lawmakers in Albany have agreed to a deal that will put Nassau’s machines at the Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct, where Genting New York LLC already operates about 5,400 machines. Nassau will get $9 million in each of the first two years while Genting gets the operation rolling and deals with permitting issues. After that, Nassau will get $25 million a year in perpetuity, plus annual inflation adjustments.
That means the county will get revenue from a casino without having to build and run one. And Genting gets the new machines and avoids a rival gambling operation just a few miles away.
However, one problem is that the money will actually go to Nassau Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., then flow to the county. The risk is that $25 million a year turns out to be too little in return for the machines, and that the OTB soaks up cash that should go to the county. Nassau OTB has about $12 million in debt and ended 2015 with an operating deficit of more than $7 million. It’s up to the state gaming commission to approve and enforce the OTB’s plan for the cash, and make sure vast majority of the money gets to the county.
Overall, farming out the machines to Genting seems like a winning move. But there is a larger jackpot. This deal clears the way for bigger plans at both Belmont and Aqueduct.
Having VLTs at both Aqueduct and Belmont, about 10 miles from each other, wouldn’t have been good business. Neither is having two thoroughbred tracks so close to each other. Aqueduct is an unloved, dilapidated and utilitarian horse track. Belmont is grander, combining a better setting, a storied history and tremendous upside. Moving all horse-related activity from Aqueduct and to Belmont, as the New York Racing Association wants to do, would make a lot of sense.
In return for that, we see the possibility that Genting would be granted the opportunity to build a full casino at Aqueduct that could be the busiest in the world. That, as was discussed with a plan to build a full casino and convention center at Aqueduct, would likely have to involve Genting giving NYRA money to redevelop Belmont. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver fought against any true casinos in the five boroughs when New York voters approved a referendum to expand casino gambling in 2013. But Silver is now out of office.
To host racing year-round, Belmont will need serious revitalization, including a winterized track and more new stables. And to thrive, Belmont will need even more: a re-imagining that includes quality food and entertainment and a rebuilt Long Island Rail Road train station.
Horse racing has been in trouble in New York and nationally for years. NYRA has been tasked with creating a future for the three tracks the state owns — Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga — but has been denied the tools to do so. NYRA is in the middle of a state management takeover, but is due to return to being a private entity next year. Its 25-year lease to operate the three tracks runs only another six years. But NYRA’s long-term planning committee has the vision and expertise to work this out — in racing, restaurants, real estate and development. Increasing the action at Belmont while freeing NYRA of responsibility for Aqueduct could give this group the opportunity to create a first-class sports and entertainment destination.
Making Belmont a racing and entertainment center could mean rethinking the use of 28 acres owned by the state south of the track. The New York Cosmos soccer team has bid to put a new stadium there, but the plan has stalled. With the New York Islanders’ relationship with the Barclays Center in Brooklyn reportedly on thin ice, the site could present an opportunity to bring hockey back to Nassau County.
The news about putting Nassau’s slots in New York City is stunning, and some of the details could be worrisome. However, from what we know, the deal satisfies many needs and quiets more than a few concerns. The county should get its money, and the local community can stop agitating about a casino. Most important, however, Aqueduct and Belmont and their neighborhoods could get a shot at a better future.
It could be that rarest of occurrences: a sure thing.