Thursday, February 25, 2010

Officials Have Differing Views on Aqueduct Redevelopment

Addabbo, Pheffer, Braton Call For End to Delays

By Conor Greene

Local officials and community leaders have mixed feelings on whether the Aqueduct redevelopment project should immediately move forward after the governor’s pick has been criticized as politically motivated.

The decision to pick Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG) to rebuild the Ozone Park racetrack into a racino featuring 4,500 video lottery terminals has come under fire over the past few weeks. Critics say AEG was chosen in part because of connections between Gov. David Paterson and several of the consortium’s key partners. There are also complaints that AEG was allowed to unfairly revise its bid to beat out the other competi- tors.

According to reports, the U.S attorney’s office has issued a subpoena to the state for all documents related to the bidding process, and federal investigators have been discussing the process with losing bidders.

This week, the Daily News reported that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is waiting until the Inspector General completes his investigation before signing off on the deal. “I think everything should wait until that information is available,” the Manhattan Democrat told the paper. “I think what’s important is we know we’re signing on to something that’s appropriate, and if not, we’re not going to.”

The decision to choose the politically-connected AEG over other bidders with more experience in the casino industry has been widely criticized since it was announced. In an effort to quell the skepticism, Gov. Pater- son last week released certain documents related to the bidding process. However, a recent Siena poll revealed that only three percent of respondents view the deal with AEG as “fair and appropriate”.

However, local officials say, despite legitimate questions over the process, the time has come to move forward on the project, eight years after the state approved video lottery termi- nals at Aqueduct. In a joint statement, Senator Joseph Addabbo, Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer and Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton argue that, “two governors later, VLTs are still not up and running at Aqueduct, a community is in a frus- trated limbo, and our cash-strapped state is still not realizing much-needed income.”

In the statement, Addabbo, Pheffer and Braton argue that the same selection process was used this year as last, when Delaware North was initially chosen but backed out after it was unable to provide the state with the promised upfront payment. “There was controversy then, as there is now, about the use of that previous process,” the officials wrote. “That selection was met in the local community with much skepticism... Yet no call for a special investigation or media attack was evident then.”

Now, according to the officials, “the media- driven firestorm now calling for details, criteria used and investigations, is to some, unfortunate and very late.”

Addabbo agreed that the selection process created a year ago is “flawed” due to its lack of transparency and objective criteria. “But what is not fair game is to scrap the entire project at this point... The potential jobs this racino project offers are needed now, not later,” he said in the statement. “The state has to deal with its budget now, not later.” He added that many area residents have been calling for this project to move forward for years.

Pheffer said it is “imperative” that the state moves quickly to finalize the contract with AEG and called the project “an economic engine that is vital to the future of the local economy.” She criticized the attacks on AEG at this point, as there has “been ample time for all the calls for documents from all bid- ders to be released and calls for scrutiny of all investors in each of the bids over the past year.”

While also agreeing that the process employed in Albany is “not the best way to make this kind of decision,” Braton also called for the project to move forward without delay. “Our criteria in looking at the information provided to us by all the bidders could be summed up by five questions,” she said. “Can they build it? Can they run it? Will this proposal mesh well with our community? Will the company be open to working with us to minimize any negative impacts? And will the state realize a big pot of money that will help ease the burden on New York taxpayers? The AEG selection meets our criteria and we can work with them.”

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