Westbury Casino at Fortunoff Site Slammed by Critics

More than 1,000 people packed the gymnasium at St. Brigid/Our Lady of Hope Regional School in Westbury during a hearing on a proposed gaming parlor on Jan. 15, 2014 (Long Island Press)

A hearing on a proposed mini-casino featuring 1,000 video lottery terminals—aka electronic slot machines—at the former Fortunoff property in Westbury was so packed that some people were turned away Thursday.

An estimated more than 1,000 residents overflowed from the gymnasium at St. Brigid/Our Lady of Hope Regional School in Westbury, where the crowd cheered the plan’s many critics and booed Nassau Regional Off-Track Betting (OTB) officials, who estimated the project will create 200 permanent jobs and generate $20 million in annual revenue for the county.

“Hell no, casino!’” chanted opponents, many of whom held signs that read: “Stop the CasiNo at Fortunoff, we will remember in November.”

The hearing came a day after Suffolk OTB officials held a closed-door meeting with county and Brookhaven town officials as well as civic leaders opposed to a similar proposal to build an estimated $40-million, nearly 100,000-square-foot parlor on a vacant lot in Medford that the agency bought for $10 million. That parlor may open by next year. Nassau’s mini-casino could open as early as November.

Critics have been frustrated by the process. As quasi-public agencies, OTBs can build gambling parlors without approval of town zoning boards, officials said. The New York State Gaming Commission—which regulates gambling and is the only agency that the OTB must go to for approval to open the facility—has no role in site selection, an agency spokesman and OTB officials said.

“What we’re doing is not a full-fledged casino,” Arthur Walsh, the OTB attorney negotiating the purchase of the property, told the rowdy crowd as they heckled him. “We’re talking about a different type of operation.”

The proposal does not call for any live dealers hosting table games such as craps, or live card games, such as blackjack. But, there would be some electronic table games, such as roulette. The facility would have one-fifth as many games as Resort World Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, no hotel, and would not host large-scale events and concerts, the OTB said in a mailer to residents—some of whom live less than a mile from the site.

Westbury Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro has indicated that although the site does not fall within village limits, he may file a lawsuit to try and block the parlor. Lawmakers in the Democratic minority of the GOP-controlled Nassau County Legislature have suggested replacing the three-member OTB board with others opposed to the plan. But, Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said that she hasn’t taken a position on the issue and no such a proposal will not be on the agenda at the legislature’s next meeting on Jan. 26.

Other elected officials opposed to the plan range from the supervisors of the towns of Hempstead and North Hempstead—the property abuts the line between the two municipalities—to Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, plus state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) and U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City).

The parlor was originally proposed for the OTB’s Race Palace in Plainview, but community opposition previously nixed that idea. Many at the hearing called for the parlor site to be moved to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, which is preparing for a $200-million renovation—an idea that neighboring Hofstra University has opposed. OTB officials countered that the coliseum’s owners—Nassau County—did not express interest in having gaming on their property.

Nassau OTB President Joseph Ciaro said in a statement that the agency “will work closely with all of the elected officials who represent the surrounding areas…to address any community concerns and answer any questions regarding the proposed location of the VLT facility.”

On the other side of the county line, Suffolk OTB President Phil Nolan said that the Medford plan is currently in the traffic-study phase—part of the state-mandated environmental review process that Nassau OTB will face, too. Although he is also facing critics, he believes the positives, such as creating jobs, outweigh the negatives, such as concerns that crime will spike in the area.

“We’re trying to be as good neighborly as we can,” Nolan told the Press. “Both facilities, when they open, they’re going to be positive…We are going to do our level best to minimize any problems in any area.”

Back at the Westbury hearing, among the catcalls that residents shouted at Nassau OTB officials was: “Build it next to your house!”

Opponents plan to rally outside the Fortunoff site at The Source mall on Old Country Road at 1 p.m. Saturday.