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Nassau OTB drops plan for casino at Fortunoff site; decision called 'huge victory' for residents

The long closed Fortunoff store at the Source

The long closed Fortunoff store at the Source Mall in Westbury on Dec. 30, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Nassau Regional Off-Track Betting Corp., facing mounting opposition from a growing chorus of local, county and state officials, has abandoned its pursuit of the vacant Fortunoff building in Westbury to build a casino-style gaming parlor.

Nassau OTB general counsel Arthur Walsh said in a statement Saturday that while the site would have received all of the necessary approvals, "it is clear that the level of opposition from the surrounding neighbors and their elected representatives no longer made the Fortunoff property a viable option."

Walsh said the agency was committed to finding an alternative site for the gaming parlor, which would include up to 1,000 video slot machines and table games.

OTB did not disclose potential locations but said it would conduct a "comprehensive review and analysis of sites that are willing to be considered."

A source familiar with the project said the most likely location for the gaming parlor is Belmont Park.

OTB officials have previously said Belmont would not be approved by the state Gaming Commission or by the New York Racing Association because of its proximity to Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, nine miles away, which earned nearly $800 million in revenue last year.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) was a critical voice in protecting Resorts World from regional competition, the source said. Silver will resign his leadership post Monday after he was charged with pocketing $4 million in illegal kickbacks in exchange for steering legislation and state grants.

A gaming commission spokesman and Resorts World declined to comment on Belmont. NYRA did not respond to a request for comment.


Search for new location

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said he will meet with OTB this week "to discuss a new location."

Mangano's office said the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum will not be considered as an alternative location. The coliseum site would likely face stiff resistance from Hofstra University and from developer Bruce Ratner, who is spending $229 million to transform the property into a sports-and-entertainment complex.

Elected officials Saturday celebrated OTB's decision as victory for the community, which argued vociferously at meetings and protests that a casino would increase crime and traffic, cause property values to plummet and change the neighborhood's suburban character.

"I have never felt such heartfelt, passionate and coordinated concern before," North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said. "This is democracy in action."

Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray said she was grateful "OTB listened to the will of the people."

Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro said OTB's decision shows "what good civic responsibility can do," and Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) called it a "huge victory" for residents.

State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) hailed the decision as good news for residents who argued "that it is too close to our homes, our schools, and it would have a negative impact on the community," he said.

OTB's reversal is the second time in as many months that Nassau residents have turned back an unpopular measure that would have benefited the county's cash-strapped coffers.

In December, Nassau lawmakers repealed the county's speed camera program after receiving hundreds of complaints from furious constituents.

For more than a month, OTB had been negotiating a contract with Fortunoff's lenders and bond holders, who took ownership of the building on Old Country Road in 2012 when a foreclosure auction attracted no buyers willing to pay off the $128 million debt on the site. A draft of the contract had been reached but no contract had been signed, Walsh said Friday.

The about-face by OTB comes one day after the towns of Hempstead and North Hempstead and the Village of Westbury sued in state Supreme Court to block the project but were denied a temporary restraining order, which would have prevented the agency from purchasing the Fortunoff building.

The municipalities, along with a local civic group and five area residents who signed onto the lawsuit, said the casino would violate a Hempstead Town building code ordinance prohibiting an OTB facility from operating within 500 feet of any home. North Hempstead Town officials said the nearest home is 418 feet from the vacant retail store.

Walsh said OTB is a state agency exempt from local zoning. He said the closest home is in the Town of North Hempstead while the Fortunoff building is in the Town of Hempstead -- nullifying the Hempstead zoning issue.

In 2013, state lawmakers approved legislation allowing Nassau and Suffolk OTBs to each erect a gaming parlor with 1,000 video slot machines. The measure was part of a deal that allowed for the construction of four upstate casinos.


OTB considered 19 sites

OTB said it looked at 19 sites to build its mini-casino and selected the Fortunoff building because of its centralized location, ample parking and proximity to area highways.

Nassau OTB officials have said the VLT parlor would create 200 jobs and generate $150 million in annual revenue, including $68 million to boost state education funding and $20 million for the county.

But the proposal has faced near-unanimous opposition from a bipartisan group of elected officials. The latest came last Thursday when Legis. Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), presiding officer of the Nassau Legislature, announced that she and the majority GOP caucus were calling on OTB to find another site.

Gonsalves Saturday welcomed the OTB's decision and said that all future gaming sites must "meet a high standard of transparency."

Suffolk OTB wants to spend $65 million to redevelop a 31-acre former cinema multiplex property in Medford into a video lottery terminal parlor. The Medford parlor has not attracted the same level of controversy as the proposal for the Fortunoff site, but the Brookhaven Town Board passed a nonbinding resolution last Thursday opposing the project.

Timeline of the plan to build a video lottery parlor in Nassau County:

MAY 2013:

Senate Republicans propose legislation that would allow Nassau and Suffolk counties to each build a gaming parlor with up to 1,000 video lottery terminals.


Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs the legislation, which also authorized the construction of four upstate casinos

APRIL 2014:

Nassau Regional Off-Track Betting Corp. issues a request for statements of interest, soliciting commercial property owners who would be interested in selling their land to the agency to build a gaming parlor. A total of 19 property owners express interest.


Nassau OTB announces that it has selected the vacant Fortunoff building on Old Country Road in Westbury for its proposed VLT parlor.

JAN. 15, 2015:

More than 1,000 residents pack an elementary school in Westbury for a public meeting to voice their opposition to the plan. Three more protests are held in the coming weeks.

JAN. 31:

Nassau OTB announces that it will abandon its pursuit of the Fortunoff site and will instead seek alternative locations.

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