2012-01-13 / Top Stories

Questions On Cuomo Convention Center

By Howard Schwach

The Cuomo administration’s plans to build a massive convention center in Queens may also pave the way for the city’s first full-blown casino, but many local civic leaders and politicians are not so sure that it is a good idea for the already impacted communities surrounding the planned facility.

The Cuomo administration entered last week into a nonbinding agreement with a Malaysian conglomerate to build a massive complex at the aging Aqueduct racetrack in Ozone Park that includes a “casino expansion” of an existing gambling space at the site.

The details emerged a day after Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered a State of the State speech in which he announced that his administration is working with the Genting Group to develop the nation’s largest convention center at Aqueduct, near JFK airport. In the same speech, Cuomo said he supported legalizing casino gambling with a state constitutional amendment.

The new details are contained in a copy of an agreement between the state and Genting released by Cuomo’s office Thursday.

According to that document, the state and Genting would work together to develop a project that would include a “convention, exhibition, hotel and parking space, as well as a casino expansion to the existing video lottery terminal facility.”

A spokesman for Cuomo said the governor hasn’t made any assurances to Genting about a casino at Aqueduct. Representatives of Genting said they intend to move ahead with the convention center regardless of New York’s laws on casino gambling.

“Though Genting America supports the governor’s constitutional amendment legalizing table games in New York, our plans for a privately funded, $4 billion convention center are not predicated on that amendment,” Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Genting, told reporters.

Published reports in many daily papers said Genting has committed to building the first 2.6-million-square-foot phase of the convention center and Cuomo has indicated that he would support giving it the rights to build a casino there. Genting would complete the 3.8-million-square-foot project if a constitutional amendment for casino gambling is passed, which could happen in November 2013 at the soonest.

Local politicians reacted to the governor’s plan with some trepidation and speculation.

“The proposal to build the largest convention center in the nation at Aqueduct is an ambitious plan that must be undertaken responsibly and appropriately, with real community involvement and participation,” Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder told The Wave. He pointed out that the new plan would provide jobs and increase the possibility of a transportation upgrade for the Rockaway community as well as Ozone Park and its surrounding communities.

Congressman Bob Turner seconded that sentiment that the community has to have its say in every step of the development process.

“I have requested that the governor insure that [the local community boards] and stakeholders are involved in the planning stages of this project,” Turner said. “It would be in the best interests of the project to have those who know the area best provide feedback as to which approach would be the most beneficial for this massive undertaking.”

Some of the editorialists in the daily papers were skeptical as well.

“The governor is crazy if he thinks visitors to New York City want to see Queens,” said Kyle Smith of the New York Post. “Many thousands of visitors pass through this area every day – JFK Airport is only a few miles away – but none of them is thinking, Ah, this is everything that I knew New York could be.”

“What are the conventioneers going to do when they are finished work for the day,” said another, “go out and grab a pizza on Cross Bay Boulevard?”

Genting’s “racino” at Aqueduct includes two floors with thousands of video lottery terminals, which are similar to slot machines. If casino gaming were legalized, Genting could potentially add Las Vegas-like table games and slot machines on an upper floor or replace some of the lottery terminals below.

New York has higher gambling taxes than most other states. Racino operators get to keep about a third of their revenue. People familiar with the talks said Genting is trying to negotiate a lower tax rate.

Genting’s agreement with the state also proposes up to 3,000 hotel rooms with the convention center — a project it dubbed the New York International Convention and Exhibition Center, or NICE.

Genting officials said they hoped to complete the first 2.6-million-square-foot phase of the project by 2014 at the earliest, with construction of hotel rooms slated to begin in November 2015.

It envisions adding more convention space in a second phase, building on a 22- acre space to the east that’s currently owned by the Port Authority. The authority would have to lease Genting the land with the approval of the state’s franchise oversight board.

The Queens convention center would largely replace the Jacob K. Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side, which Cuomo described as obsolete and too small. The Javits site could then be redeveloped near the Hudson Yards project.

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