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Pols must ensure safety near a Belmont casino

The racing track at Belmont Park.

The racing track at Belmont Park. Credit: Shannon O'Connor

Anthony Santino, the new Hempstead Town supervisor, spoke out last week in favor of the proposal to build a 1,000-machine gambling parlor at Belmont Park. Santino points to tax revenue and jobs the facility would create, the economic development it could spur and the fact that gambling is already legal at the site. Most local Republicans are supporting fellow party members in County Executive Edward Mangano and Nassau Off-Track Betting Corp. president Joseph Cairo, who desperately need the slot wheels to start turning.

Most local Democrats, led by the siblings Assemb. Michaelle Solages and Nassau County Legis. Carrié Solages, oppose the plan, citing the potential for increased crime and traffic, and concern for the safety of nearby schools. But politics aside, what matters is whose assertions are true, and what’s the best path for this old and beautiful race course and the surrounding community.

Do casinos bring crime? There’s a mountain of research on that question, but mixed results. In 1999, the federal National Gambling Impact Study Commission found insufficient data to determine whether casinos lead to more crime. Studies have shown both drops and increases, and police officials say it’s a complex question. Casinos swell the number of people in an area without increasing the official population, which makes crime rates look higher. And casinos can prevent crime, as they provide jobs to workers who might otherwise be driven to wrongdoing. Locally, the issue is complicated by the fact that the region’s two racinos, in Yonkers and Queens, already had gambling on horses, while studies have nearly always looked at new gambling venues.

In Yonkers, crime is down somewhat since video slots were introduced at the raceway in 2006. In the Queens precinct that contains Genting Group’s Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct, crime is up somewhat since VLTs came in 2011.

Onsite, it’s clear that strong security can keep things safe, and both Yonkers and Aqueduct are safe, with relatively few incidents reported. Off-site but nearby, experts say, policing needs to be increased as it would for anything that attracts crowds, and the casinos should fund that increase. Obviously, addictive gambling can cause misery for those who lose too much, and lead addicts to crime. But could VLTs at Belmont significantly increase gambling addictions? With Resorts World 10 miles away, lottery tickets sold in stores and horse betting available at Belmont and via phone and computer, it seems unlikely. And 1,000 machines, with player arrivals and departures spread throughout the night and day, wouldn’t bring significantly more traffic.

One local Democrat who’s rightly going against the grain and favors the slots at Belmont is Elmont East End Civic Association leader Patrick Nicolosi. He supports the plan because the community needs services, and the county needs $20 million a year in budgeted VLT revenue. Nicolosi also believes the VLTs could be part of a local renaissance if Belmont also gets year-round racing, a new soccer stadium, retail and residential growth, and regular service at the Belmont train station. Belmont redevelopment in general and the slot parlor in particular can be done properly and safely. Politicians need to stop the squabbling and fearmongering and see that they are done right.