Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County officials last week took what may become their biggest step yet toward finally getting out of their budget hole.
Officials put out a request for proposals for outside consultants to help them pick a site and design and oversee construction of a new $1-billion-plus gambling destination -- with 1,000 electronic slot machines, along with food, drink, entertainment and shopping.
"This is extremely important to our future," said Phil Nolan, president of Suffolk Off-Track Betting Corp. "Millions and millions of dollars has been escaping from the county for far too long and we are finally going to be able to offer the same activity to our residents and keep the benefits right here at home."
Nassau and Suffolk, both facing budget problems, got authorization for video slot machines, up to 1,000 in each county, from the State Legislature in June as part of a statewide deal to allow a voter referendum on upstate casinos. The counties will get the video slots regardless of the vote's outcome.
In Nassau, officials are eyeing the 56,000-square-foot Race Palace, the county's premiere OTB outlet with big screens and on-site catering, located just south of the Long Island Expressway in Plainview, Nassau OTB president Joseph Cairo said.
With sites including Aqueduct Racetrack and Yonkers Raceway raking in revenues, Suffolk has laid out an ambitious timeline, which includes groundbreaking by April 15, and opening less than a year later.
Suffolk's 33-page request for proposals calls for projects "that establish a new standard of excellence in design, a sense of place and an exciting vibrant video lottery facility." The winner should demonstrate "its capacity, both financially and based on prior experience to transform development concepts into a sustainable operating environment," the document says.
Potential sites include Republic Airport, the Hauppauge Industrial Park, Tanger Outlets at the Arches in Deer Park, the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center and property near Jerry Wollkopf's planned mega-development in Central Islip.
Past forecasts have shown bettors will wager $1 billion a year in each county, with the state, counties and school districts sharing from $80 million to $100 million in new revenues or more.
Nassau OTB officials have held ongoing discussions with County Executive Edward Mangano, Cairo said. Their internal review should take four to six weeks, and after that officials will have "a more defined position" about their plans and whether consultants need to be hired.
Cairo credited former Nassau OTB president Larry Aaronsen for having "the foresight to create the infrastructure if VLTs [video lottery terminals] came in down the road" when the Palace opened 10 years ago.
The Palace has parking for only 250 to 300 cars, plus 200 spots rented from a nearby business. But Nassau owns 11.5 acres nearby that could be used for extra parking or building expansion.
Cairo estimated that introduction of video slot machines at the Palace is likely to take 18 to 36 months. "We want to get it up and running as soon as possible to generate revenue," Cairo said. "But at the same time we want to do it the right way."
Desmond Ryan, a veteran Republican business lobbyist, said the ongoing revenues could go a long way toward helping Nassau pay off its backlog of property tax settlements, and Suffolk to reduce its projected $250 million budget shortfall.
"The potential is tremendous," Ryan said. "It's the kind of money that could help Nassau with its tax certiorari problem and provide recurring revenue to help Suffolk out of its . . . [budget] hole."