Casino at Belmont again on the table

The possibility of opening a casino at Belmont Park is back in play politically just days after senate Republicans agreed to the selection of a company to operate a casino at Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.

Sen. Dean Skelos, the majority leader of the New York Senate, called for the installation of slot machines at Belmont Park on Monday in a statement he released through his office. The statement called for Gov. David Paterson, the legislature, and the New York Racing Association – the franchised operator of Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga – to develop a plan by Jan. 1 to incorporate slot machines at Belmont.

„I have met with a number of individuals with unique and exciting economic development proposals for Belmont Park,“ Skelos said in the statement. „In these challenging economic times, it is even more important to sell the development rights to Belmont Park and seize this valuable opportunity for state and local taxpayers and community residents.“

Last week, Skelos and other Republican legislators – who face losing the majority in the senate in elections this year for the first time in four decades – agreed with the selection of Delaware North Companies as the operator of the Aqueduct casino after initially balking at the recommendation. Delaware North, which promised the state a USD 370 million upfront payment, had already been endorsed over two other companies by Paterson and the assembly’s Democratic-led leadership.

All three companies had employed scores of lobbyists to pitch their development proposals for Aqueduct. The two companies that lost out in the bidding – a partnership of SL Green Realty and Hard Rock Entertainment, and a partnership of Capital Play Pty and Mohegan Sun – have consistently stated that they supported the installation of slot machines at Belmont Park.

Paterson said in a statement that he supported redeveloping Belmont Park, but the statement did not specifically mention a casino. In the statement, Paterson said that he had asked Marisa Lago, the president of the Empire State Development Corporation, and John Sabini, the chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, to work with legislators to develop a plan for the track by Jan. 1.

Assembly Democrats, including speaker Sheldon Silver, have consistently opposed a casino at Belmont.

The Aqueduct casino, which is not expected to open until early in 2010, will likely become one of the highest-grossing casinos on the East Coast, given its location. Most budget analysts have estimated that the 4,500 slot machines at the casino will generate USD 500 million in revenue annually. A Belmont casino would be expected to generate comparable revenues.

As part of a deal with NYRA to extend the association’s franchise 25 years, the state has taken title to the racetracks and the property. NYRA and its horsemen will receive approximately 15 percent of the net revenues from the Aqueduct casino.

Charles Hayward, the president of NYRA, said on Tuesday that the association would have no comment on the likelihood of development of Belmont.

„Right now we are focusing on the installation of [slot machines] at Aqueduct,“ Hayward said.