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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Nassau officials bet on casino to boost finances

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano makes his State

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano makes his State of the County speech in Bethpage. (Mar. 15, 2010) Photo Credit: John Dunn

By tossing a bold casino proposal on the table, Nassau officials appear to savor the chance to cut a huge deal that could turn the county's finances from loser to winner.

Sure there are holes, unknowns, obstacles and social concerns.

Yes, a complex dance would be required first, involving the surrounding community, the Town of Hempstead, the state, the Shinnecock Nation and other plans for the Nassau hub.

Early odds are always long against a big project.

But makers of budgets and economic plans in public executive administrations see these things through a distinctive prism. They are geared toward throwing big ideas on the board to test them against facts as they develop on the ground.

Especially now. From the perch of a deficit-vexed Mangano administration, hiking tax rates on individual homeowners would be political poison.

So big alternate revenues, in times like these, become a holy grail - as they do on most levels of government. "Nassau's structural deficit - the difference between recurring revenues and expenses - run about $250 million annually," noted one official. "A project of this magnitude can help bring stability and take the burden off residents."

How much the Nassau treasury might yield from a Shinnecock casino is subject to guesswork. But County Executive Edward Mangano can and will make the pitch that this location, less than 20 miles from Manhattan, offers a better business proposition than anything in Yaphank, Calverton or the Catskills - or even Belmont racecourse.

The pending Lighthouse plan of adding significant office space, in the current climate, is iffy at best, and a disaster at worst, as some insiders see it. But a casino close to the city could be "easy to finance" and "a moneymaking venture from the get-go," said a supporter of the idea, who talks about big shows with big names. "It would be quite the entertainment destination site, with cool restaurants and first-class hotels."

If this unfolds, proponents will talk up the construction jobs and other employment it would create, and the property tax revenues for the Uniondale School District. Traffic? Accept it or not, the argument will go that a casino would mostly attract evening and weekend crowds rather than weekday rush-hour commuters.

As for new-Coliseum plans, the administration has let it be known it, of course, wants very much for the Islanders to stay in town - and draw crowds through the playoffs.

The Lighthouse project for the Nassau hub pushed by former County Executive Thomas Suozzi would thus be essentially altered.

Dark, unproven theories and suppositions whipped as always around the political world: that GOP leaders really don't want mixed-use projects of a kind Democrats might move into; that Charles Wang is secretly preparing to move his Islanders and Mangano wanted to pre-empt the void; that pro-Rick Lazio movers and shakers were looking to upstage a project in the domain of Suffolk Executive Steve Levy, etc.

But as typical as it is for localities to seek a big revenue score, it's just as common for successor administrations to change big projects. When Michael Bloomberg became New York City mayor in 2002 amid a fiscal crisis, he shelved stadium projects sketched by his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. Later in the term, he proposed a stadium on the West Side that went nowhere.

For government economic-development officials, presenting any coherent strategy always beats the alternative, even if the devil - or the Islander - is in the details.

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