For residents, businesses, it's Elmont-Belmont
The breakfast and lunch business was jumping at the Stop 20 Diner in Elmont Monday. And dinner business was expected to be heavy, too.
No wonder. It's Belmont Stakes Week, when, come Saturday, history could be made at the track nearby on Hempstead Turnpike.
"What would Elmont look like if we had this kind of business year-round ?" said Gus Serafis, who, with his partner, are Stop 20's third owners. The diner -- so named because it's located at the 20th stop of a trolley that once ran east from Queens -- opened in the 1940s. Belmont Park opened in 1905, at a time when East End-bound city residents would first stay a few weeks of the season in tiny, brightly colored cottages in Elmont.
Most of those original cottages are gone. But the sense of excitement for thoroughbred racing's third, and most grueling, leg of the Triple Crown remains.
Alicia Munian, 27, lives one block from Belmont Park. She's lived in Elmont -- a community of 30,000 that will swell with more than 100,000 visitors come race day -- all of her life.
"You can feel that sense of something special; it's in the air," she said. The street outside her home fills with cars. "People park here and walk to the track," she said, "They're moving fast, everybody's talking and they're happy to be in my hometown."
But what about Elmont, which for years has struggled to revive its downtown business strip, which also happens to be located near Belmont's front gate?
"We'd love to see something happen in that south parking lot at Belmont," said Paul Sapienza, head of Elmont's Chamber of Commerce, who now runs his parents' business, Sapienza Bake Shop.
"Why not put a convention center there or a hotel or a sports complex that would attract visitors all year-round?" he said. "That would help Belmont, Elmont and Nassau County, too."
For many Elmont residents, the south parking lot at Belmont -- the entire park covers 600 acres that straddlesNassau County and Queens -- represents a chance to bottle this week's excitement and also bring needed jobs and long-stalled economic development.
"We have heard so much from so many politicians about doing something for Elmont and nothing gets done," he said. His sentiment was shared by other local business owners, who said they wanted action, rather than words.
Does that dampen Elmont's enthusiasm about the Belmont Stakes? Especially this year, when I'll Have Another fights to take the Triple Crown? Hardly.
Frantz Sylvain, who turned a vacant bank building on Hempstead Turnpike into a Haitian restaurant that opened earlier this year -- The Vault, natch -- will be looking for new customers among the Belmont crowd.
At Stop 20, Serafis is expecting to once again -- just as when Big Brown made his unsuccessful run for the Triple Crown last year -- send lost cellphones back to customers visiting from across the country and around the world.
Already, the community's had a parade and craft fair to celebrate the big race. On Wednesday, there's a film festival at the local library, where the high school or college winner of a make-a-business-plan-to-revitalize-Elmont will be announced.
And, come Saturday, some Elmont residents will be among the grandstand crowd, including Michaelle Solages, who will attend with family members, including her county legislator brother, Carrié. "Belmont is in my heart," she said.
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