That sense of immediacy is echoed by Suffolk Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), who has been spearheading a county task force on gaming for several years.
“I can’t emphasize this enough,” he says. “The Shinnecocks have got to move quickly. Otherwise, they’re going to be shut out of the casino operation… If they don’t move, they’re going to lose their play… The world is shifting under everybody’s feet at this point as far as [their] casino goes.”
And just like any business, it’s all about location, location, location.
“Anywhere you put a casino, there’s going to be competition,” explains Robert Fonti, Suffolk chairman of the Long Island Business Council and former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s appointee on the gaming task force.
“We were looking at it because there’s a portion of the proceeds the county would get that would be millions and millions of dollars over the years.”
Under present conditions, the tribe could legally host “level two” gaming, such as high-stakes bingo, on their reservation in Southampton, but to do something more lucrative like table gaming would require a state compact from the governor. King, the Shinnecock trustees chair, told Newsday earlier this month that “we made a commitment to local, state and federal officials to move to Belmont” instead of building a casino on the reservation.
Horsley said his task force had shown the tribe “a number of properties” in Suffolk, and that an old Estee Lauder factory off Sills Road at Exit 66 on the Long Island Expressway had 200,000 feet ready to go.
“All they had to do was build it out,” Horsley said. But then Belmont looked more promising to the tribe and they shifted their attention. Now, their options are dwindling fast.
“The chaos, confusion and bickering within the Shinnecock tribe has only hurt them personally,” says Desmond Ryan of the Association for a Better Long Island. “Their inability to effectively get their act together has kind of forced the issue.”
On the other hand, he noted that even at Aqueduct there are many issues still to resolve. Among them, the legislature has to pass a resolution legalizing casino gambling in two consecutive sessions and New Yorkers have to approve a referendum amending the state constitution.
“Until the voters have spoken, I think all of this [speculation] is quite entertaining,” Ryan continues.
And he’s not sold on the convention center as a cure-all for the state’s economic woes.
“Convention participation, not only here in New York but nationally, has not only been flat, but in some instances, it’s been off quite a bit,” adds Ryan.
In Cuomo’s letter to the legislature, the governor defended the state’s involvement with Genting in creating what would become the New York International Convention and Exhibition Center.
“Opponents to the project point out that many convention centers lose money…” it reads. “Most governments weight the issue of building a convention center with public money as a ‘loss leader’ for the net economic gain of additional tourism dollars, etc. That is a debatable proposition. However, that is not the case here. The state is not building anything… Genting, a private entity, will take the risk of economic success. I have never been a casino or racino proponent, but we are here now and the question is how to best maximize the economics and protect our citizens.”
Moke McGowan, president of the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission, acknowledges the flat economics of the convention business but sees the benefit of this proposal to our region.
“Is there an overbuilding of concrete convention centers nationwide?” he asks. “Yes, but a lot of that was built by smaller, tertiary-sized communities who believed that if they built it, ‘they’ would come. [But] they didn’t have a draw to begin with. Why would you go there?”
McGowan insists that Long Island does have a reason “for people to truly consider us as part of their destination planning,” and he anticipates that hotel occupancy rates on the Island will rise more than 5 percent to accommodate overflow from a new convention center at Aqueduct, because room costs would “start to look a lot more affordable” for meeting planners.
“Our lodging does not charge for parking, our occupancy tax is significantly lower than what you’ll find in New York City,” he says.
For example, Nassau charges 3 percent, whereas the tax in Manhattan is 15-18 percent.
Taking Genting’s money to think big at Aqueduct makes sense to Suffolk planning Chairman David Calone.
“He has an asset there that needs to be monetized,” he says of Cuomo. “You build convention centers for 20 or 30 years out. Now is a good time to build any kind of large facility because labor costs are low, construction costs are low and borrowing costs are low.”
Calone welcomes the idea of a huge convention center near the Nassau County line.
“Any time you get millions of people coming four or five miles from your doorstep, that’s a good thing,” he continues. “We’ve just got to figure out that piece of it.”
And there’s precedent.
“Casinos are definitely a good draw in other parts of the country,” says Heather Briccetti, president and CEO of The Business Council of New York State. “Aqueduct already has video [gaming] and horse racing. Allowing the full build-out of what’s possible is a good idea… There’s always a finite amount of disposable income. The question is: Can we do something better that will attract the disposable income to New York? That’s the goal here…. It’s very reasonable to assume that Long Island would benefit financially from the increase in [convention business and gambling activity at Aqueduct].”