Crain's New York Business Reports on Sen. Johnson's Belmont Efforts

Craig M. Johnson

December 19, 2009

State Sen. Craig Johnson appears to be on a different page from fellow legislators who are picking a developer to build and operate a racino at Aqueduct Racetrack. In the wake of preliminary federal recognition of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, Johnson has written Gov. Paterson a letter asking him to explore the possibility of a casino at Belmont Park, which is a 17-minute drive from Aqueduct.

Bidders for the Aqueduct project have been operating under the assumption that they won't have competition from Belmont. A tribal casino 10 miles away would likely render Aqueduct economically unfeasible because the racino will only have video lottery terminals, while the Shinnecocks would have roulette, blackjack, poker, craps and more. VLTs are essentially push-button slot machines and are not considered as exciting as slots with handles, let alone table games. That is why Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver prefers VLTs; they seem less likely to foster gambling habits and separate the poor from their money.

But Johnson, a Nassau County Democrat who has been unafraid to buck legislative leaders, believes a Shinnecock casino could jump-start efforts to revive Belmont that have stalled since an economic development study on the park was completed in February 2008. Surrounding neighborhoods want Belmont to become an economic engine for the region, Johnson wrote to Paterson.

Johnson spokesman Rich Azzopardi dismisses the notion that a Belmont casino would kill Aqueduct. “The mere existence of Las Vegas and Atlantic City blow a hole in any notion that a gaming facility cannot be successful with competition,” he says.