Queens: Politicians Can’t Take a Gamble Without a Deal

The Rockaway Beach rail line has lied abandoned for over 40 years. The discussions surrounding the Aqueduct casino has reignited a community debate between advocates of either a reactivated rail line or a city park. The Rockaway Beach rail line has lied abandoned for over 40 years. The discussions surrounding the Aqueduct casino has reignited a community debate between advocates of either a reactivated rail line or a city park.
Of the five boroughs, Queens is the most middle class, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. It's wealth is distributed relatively equally among income brackets, says the center. Of the five boroughs, Queens is the most middle class, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. It's wealth is distributed relatively equally among income brackets, says the center.
The seats overlooking the Aqueduct racetrack stand empty—live horse racing has moved to the Belmont track on Long Island. The Aqueduct features remote horse betting along with slot machines and electronic table games. The seats overlooking the Aqueduct racetrack stand empty—live horse racing has moved to the Belmont track on Long Island. The Aqueduct features remote horse betting along with slot machines and electronic table games.
The casino at Aqueduct sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every month and has quickly become the nation's most profitable slot machine casino. The casino at Aqueduct sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every month and has quickly become the nation's most profitable slot machine casino.
Advocates of the plan to expand the Aqueduct site draw attention to its proximity to JFK airport, which is just minutes away by train. Opponents say Queens is too remote of a destination for tourists looking for a New York experience. Advocates of the plan to expand the Aqueduct site draw attention to its proximity to JFK airport, which is just minutes away by train. Opponents say Queens is too remote of a destination for tourists looking for a New York experience.
Since opening last year, the wildly successful Resorts World Casino has been the source of numerous debates throughout the state, the borough and its communities. Since opening last year, the wildly successful Resorts World Casino has been the source of numerous debates throughout the state, the borough and its communities.

I f one thinks of Queens and an economy that is neither sluggish nor roaring comes to mind, there is good reason.

The borough has managed to weather the recession with the second-lowest unemployment rate in the New York City after Manhattan, according the US Department of Labor. The Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found in 2010 that Queens is the most middle class of the boroughs, with a relatively even distribution of wealth. As if it needed another number to fly under the radar of those with an eye on New York, the latest US Census found that Queens added an unsexy 1,343 people to its population between 2000 and 2010.

But the Goldilocks scenario of an economy that is neither too hot nor too cold is not enough for some in Queens.

“There is always room for improvement,” said State Senator Joseph Addabbo, who represents central and southwestern portion of the borough. “We in Queens should recapture our uniqueness.”

Addabbo joins a chorus of politicians and business interests in Queens that support an expansion of the racino—a combination of horse racing and other casino gambling—at the Aqueduct in Ozone Park. The project could take any form, advocates say, from an expanded casino with full table gaming to something along the lines of Governor Cuomo’s failed plan to construct the country’s largest convention center near the racetrack. Some concede that the borough could make do with a more modest-sized project to rival the aging Javits Center in Manhattan. Any large project would bring an influx of jobs and revenue to the borough, they say. But due to an intertwining of political and business interests in Albany, the massive shot-in-the-arm project that some in Queens are hoping for could be a long way off.

The plan for expanding the Aqueduct site—announced with great fanfare by Governor Cuomo earlier this year—fell apart when the state failed refused to grant exclusive gambling rights in New York City to Genting, the company that operates the casino.

The governor faces competing interests in the state, which pit upstate Indian casinos against any expansion of gambling in New York that would threaten their monopoly on the industry. That means, at the least, preventing Genting from acquiring any sort of exclusive contract in New York City or elsewhere. Although a state constitutional amendment that would legalize table gaming in New York City and increase the Aqueduct racino’s revenue is slated for next year, its success is uncertain.

In the short term, the political wrangling has prevented an economic stimulus to Queens. The Aqueduct site has quickly become the largest slot machine since opening last year. According to the Queens Chamber of Commerce, the racino has created over 1,500 jobs—the majority of them being held by Queens residents. If table gaming were legalized and the convention center built, Genting representatives say, over 10,000 jobs could be added from its construction and operation.

“There is no question the development of a convention center would lead to jobs and revenue,” said Stefan Friedman, a spokesman for Genting.

Friedman says the company is eager to continue working with the governor, however.

“We are eager to continue development,” he Friedman.

The economic impact of Genting’s presence in Queens has also reignited another decades-old debate in the borough.

The Rockaway Beach rail line, which once ran for miles through Queens, has for 40 years been nothing more than an abandoned eyesore running through residents’ backyards. Some politicians have publically advocated reactivating the line in light of an expanded casino and convention center at the Aqueduct, a plan that Genting has expressed interest in funding.

“It just seems like the obvious choice for residents in southern Queens,” said Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder, who represents Rockaway and supports a reactivation. “The convention center is just a catalyst. Restoring the Rockaway line will give us so many options here to connect.”

The reactivation plan is competing with neighborhood plans to convert a stretch of the abandoned rail into a city park, akin to Manhattan’s Highline. Advocates of the plan say that a park with vendors and safe lighting would create jobs and increase land values.

“This could be an economic engine for a very derelict area,” said Andrea Crawford, a local activist and chairperson of Queens Community Board 9. “We know it’s feasible.”

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