The local weekly paper in Floral Park, the community adjacent to the northern and eastern perimeters of Belmont Park, last week carried this headline: “Plan for Mall, Motel, VLTs At Belmont A Done Deal.”
This is, of course, not exactly true but it is nevertheless alarming.
The more accurate headline would have read: Politicians continue bogus promises; effort to desecrate North America’s most-important racetrack not dead yet.
The questions left to fester unanswered: How many slot machines and VLTs exceed the number of one too many? How many forms of regressive taxation – lotto, megaball, scratch off games, quick draw (video crack) – does the government need in the nation’s most highly taxed state?
With only the mayor of Floral Park expressing opposition to the desecration of Belmont Park, local and state politicians support a video lottery terminal on Hempstead Turnpike. Construction of such a facility at Aqueduct is expected to begin in early 2009. As the crow flies, Aqueduct is six miles from Belmont. To the north, a similar casino has been in operation at Yonkers Raceway for some time. Down the road, about half the casinos in Atlantic City are facing Chapter 11 filings. Out west, Las Vegas is bleeding red ink. So, the thing to do in Elmont, NY, is install more video terminals. Gambling options have reached critical mass and single-game video lottery facilities are not tourist attractions
Stupidity of this magnitude is almost performance art.
Jobs and taxes are the politicians’ mantra here. You want jobs? Fix the roads and bridges. A strip mall and a hotel at Belmont Park is no more likely to create jobs or widen the tax base – the state owns the land per its agreement with the New York Racing Association – than another fast-food franchise on the street on which the main gate at Belmont is situated.
Another question: How many bankrupt gamblers does it take to create a job?
Where is the feasibility study that supports this wish list? Where is the environmental impact study? What would be the effect of about 9,000 slot machines in two facilities 6 miles and a couple of traffic jams apart?
Belmont Park is in need of work and enlightened thought. It is not in need of repurposing. NYRA, meanwhile, has wasted a great deal of money on a study that will likely recommend another version of the desecration of the track. This will undoubtedly be horrific to those who appreciate the place for what it is and support the preservation of a unique and historic place.
The argument is often made that the building at Belmont is too large in light of the off-site migration of the audience. This is true. But it is not difficult to envision a racing museum in part of the underused space, an art gallery in another and perhaps on the main level as sales pavilion that would allow NYRA to develop another revenue source. (Alas, the inevitable result of presenting creative options to Masters of the Obvious is chaos.)
The track’s focal point – the 12-furlong main course and two turf courses and sprawling infield – should be untouchable. This is a configuration that exists nowhere else in the world and the scene of more racing history than has been written in any single racing venue in North America. Fix it. Find ways to utilize unused and seldom needed space in a manner consistent with its place in American racing. But preserve its character at all cost. --PM