2009-08-07 / Top Stories

Aqueduct Bids In Closed Selection Process

Half a dozen bids to revive the Aqueduct racetrack in nearby Ozone Park were formally submitted to Governor David Paterson's office last week as part of a closed selection process, raising eyebrows among good-government groups.

Of the six bids, three have generated the most buzz thanks to their local connections and name recognition. Insiders say the leading contenders so far are bids by Manhattan's largest landlord, SL Green; the Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG), which includes The Navegante Group and other New York area builders; and casino mogul Steven Wynn.

SL Green bid $250 million, $100 million of which would be up-front. AEG has bid $151 million, including $101 million up-front and another $50 million when the project is up and running.

Wynn reportedly bid $75 million. Sources said he indicated that he would exceed the highest bid to win, though it was not clear how he planned to increase his initial offer.

The state has declined to release information on the bids, though that has not stopped individual bidders from talking publicly about their offers.

"Releasing specific information on the bids will impair the integrity of the evaluation process and hamper the state's ability to reach a timely decision based on a bidder's first and most sincere offer," a spokesman for Paterson said.

But the secrecy surrounding the process prompted criticism from good-government groups.

"Leaving a contracting decision up to political leaders inevitably invites suspicion that politics will play a role," said Blair Horner, legislative director at the New York Public Interest Research Group. "They should make this decision as open a process as possible so the public can rest assured that the decision was made on the merits and not on the politics."

Buffalo-based Delaware North previously won rights to the 210-acre redevelopment, but it backed out late last year when it could not come up with the cash to pay a hefty $370 million up-front fee.

This time around, the up-front bids are considerably lower. Both Wynn and AEG recently presented their plans to the Queens Chamber of Commerce, an influential local player.

"We don't just want to see lottery terminals," said Jack Friedman, executive vice president of the Chamber, adding that he was most impressed by AEG.

According to Friedman, AEG is guaranteeing local and minority jobs. AEG's partners on its plans include the Rev. Floyd Flake's Empowerment Development Corp. and Queens developer Levine Builders. While Wynn did not outline specific plans to use local vendors, he said he would be open to working with the community. Wynn acknowledged that he has made little effort to play Albany politics.

Meanwhile, SL Green, along with Hard Rock International, has divulged its plans to Community Board 10, which expressed its approval, said Marc Holliday, SL Green's chief executive. SL Green's financial backers in the project include Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, and Dan Tishman of Tishman Construction.

Said a Democratic insider familiar with all of the bids, "Wynn is selling a vision and his brand, while the SL Green and AEG folks are selling a practical project that focuses on deliverables and local teams."

Well-known developer R. Donahue Peebles, along with MGM Mirage, has also put in a bid for $150 million, according to published reports. A spokeswoman for the group could not confirm the amount, but said that the proposal has received positive feedback from local representatives. Rounding out the other bids is one by Penn National Gaming for $5 million with a conditional $150 million, and another by Delaware North for $100 million.

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Community Board 10 has not taken a position as "approving" any of the proposals regarding Aqueduct. The Board is appreciative that five of the proposers have provided information about their plans to us and have willingly sought input from us on community concerns.
Betty Braton
Chairperson, Community Board 10

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