Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Community Supports Racino Decision by Victor G. Mimoni - The Queens Courier

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There may be a steady stream of complaints assailing Governor David Paterson’s decision to award the Aqueduct Racino franchise to Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG) – but back home in Ozone Park – there are many smiling faces.

“We’re not unhappy that AEG got the contract,” declared Betty Braton, chair of Community Board 10 (CB10), the unpaid citizens’ council that advises government on matters affecting the community.

Braton, a long-time resident and member of the board, was careful to distinguish between her official position and personal feelings. “Every bidder made a presentation, which we reviewed, but did not vote on,” she told The Courier. “It’s a state, not a city matter, so it’s beyond our charter. We just advised our state elected officials.”

Nevertheless, at a CB10 meeting on Thursday, February 4, at which AEG representatives made a report, a number of hand-lettered “Thank You” signs were in evidence

Privately, Braton was plain-spoken about her personal opinions. “A lot of what’s going on now sounds like ‘sour grapes,’” she said. Paterson himself echoed the sentiment in a recent radio interview, saying, “A number of people who lose cry foul, and they think they can get some resonance.”

After the interview, the Governor’s chief counsel, Peter Kiernan admitted that the selection was the result of “a political process.” Kiernan said that the decision was “not governed by procurement law.” “You have the three political leaders that have to make the decision,” he said.

“All of the proposals were different in size and scope. It made comparison difficult,” Braton said. “Every one of these groups had their obligatory minority member, their army of lobbyists and their own little problems.”

Braton conceded that there was a feeling among many that “anybody but Delaware North” should be selected, after “the fiasco of last year” when the Buffalo-based firm substantially outbid others on the up-front payment – and then couldn’t come up with the money.

“We stopped saying it during the process, but people felt we’d be in business already if it weren’t for them – some were mad they were even allowed back.”

The next on her unofficial loser list was Penn National Gaming, the high-cash bidder this time, whose plan included little more than a gaming facility. Official statements from the company have contained the strongest language objecting to the selection – unpersuasive as far as Braton was concerned.

“I don’t care for the term ‘slots-in-a-box’ but their offer was less ambitious,” she said. “It was very aggressive financially, but it meant less jobs and less [non-gambling] economic activity for our community.”

Among the other three bidders, Braton said she and many others were more sanguine. “The [Florida-based] Peebles group made a solid proposal – more ambitious proposal than Penn National – but that aspect was down the road.”

Braton said that board members “liked the proposal” of Manhattan developer SL Green, partnered with Hard Rock Entertainment. “I would not have been bent out of shape if they got it,” she said, but thought they were “too locked-in to the ‘Hard Rock CafĂ©’ image.”

“Their drawing, with a giant guitar [logo at the entrance to the facility] was more suited to Times Square than the neighborhood,” she said, admitting that residents closest to the site liked the idea the least.

Which left AEG. “One of the things we liked is that they were not only New York-based, they are Queens-based. It was a big plus,” Braton said. “It’s a solid proposal with more jobs and community benefits.”

Outside of the Ozone Park neighborhood, however, every day brings a new accusation – or suggestion – that AEG shouldn’t have won.

Jeffrey Levine, president of Douglaston-based AEG partner Levine Builders and spokesperson for the group, called some of the charges “digging deep” in a conversation with The Courier.

“They made an issue of a partner who left the former bidding group two years ago. They made an issue of the fact that a Canadian bank with extensive gaming experience decided to invest right here in New York – in Queens. It’s ridiculous.”

Officially, Levine insists that no “government official involved in this process will ever be employed by Aqueduct Entertainment Group or any of its partners, investors or affiliates.”

Likewise, AEG announced that convicted felon Darryl Greene had surrendered his interest in the group to comply with all the conditions set by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “We will pay the $300 million upfront licensing fee by March 31, 2010, and are working towards . . . breaking ground as soon as possible,” Levine said.

The remaining high-profile minority member, Reverend Floyd Flake, whose Empowerment Development group doing community development for the project – is just fine as far as Braton is concerned. “They have a track record around here. Look, we’re from around here. We know [Flake, Senator Malcolm Smith and other parties involved] and we’re okay with them.”

“It time to get moving.”