In a flurry of late-night house cleaning, the New York State Senate voted last Thursday to establish a local advisory board for Belmont Park to bring governance of the facility in line with racetracks at Aqueduct and Saratoga. Local residents have long been seeking the establishment of such a board, which was to have been part of this year’s budget before falling to the negotiating axe in March.
The measure, S.8996, was sponsored by State Sen. Elaine Phillips, a Republican of Flower Hill, with the support of Sen. Leroy Comire, a Democrat from Queens and Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat of Long Beach, whose constituents, like Phillips’, have a direct stake in the park’s development. It was part of a mass of some 300 bills that were passed late Thursday night in advance of the July 4 recess.
Under the terms negotiated in 2008 as part of a reorganization of thoroughbred horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering in New York, the state’s Franchise Oversight Board created local advisory committees to oversee operations at Aqueduct and Saratoga. For reasons that residents say have never been entirely clear, Belmont Park was left without such a board. Former state Sen. Craig Johnson, a Democrat fro, proposed legislation in 2009 that would have brought the racetrack into line with the rest of New York racing, but the bill was defeated, and Johnson himself went down to defeat in the 2012 midterm elections.
The measure passed last week provided for the committee to have five members nominated by the state Legislature — three from the Republican majority and two from the minority — as well as nominees from the franchise corporation. Senators Comire and Kaminsky were each to have nominated one member because of what Phillips said was a good working relationship between the three whose districts are most directly affected by events at the park.
“The change was made on the fly, and I was happy she said that,” Sen. Kaminsky said. “Although we are from different parties, I’m glad we’ve been able to establish a good bipartisan working relationship that will benefit all our communities.”
Kaminsky said he was disappointed the measure did not include any nominees from the public at large — an issue local civic associations have sought to redress since first pressing for an advisory board in 2008. Empire State Development Corporation (EDC) did establish a citizens’ advisory committee earlier this year that was tasked with providing feedback on the development of the proposed hockey arena and retail complex at the park. All of its members were nominated by local elected officials, and its function is purely advisory, as well as limited to issues concerning the development of the arena.
The State Assembly is not currently considering the measure. “We established a local advisory board for Belmont in March as part of the ‘one-house’ budget,” Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat of Valley Stream, said. “It was cut out at the 11th hour. We could’ve had this in March if they [the Senate] had wanted it. It’s disingenuous to present this as a victory now,” since passage of the bill has no real effect, she said.
“The Republicans in the Legislature didn’t want to engage with the civics,” Solages continued, referring to the civic associations that have long sought more direct community participation in the governance of the facility. “Whether it’s the BPCC [Belmont Park Community Coalition] in Elmont or the civic associations in Floral Park or Bellerose, they deserve to have a seat at the table and to be able to appoint some of the committee’s members.”
Both Kaminsky and Solages were hopeful that the Legislature would take up the measure again next year after the midterm elections. But local activists are still aiming for greater participation.
“If you look at the language of this bill, it’s not even close to what was proposed in March,” BPCC member Tammie Williams said. “It’s our community and our lives that are at stake. This [the arena] is going to be hugely expensive, and we need to have a say in how development is carried out. The cost goes beyond just the cost of the arena itself.”
According to Williams, Elmont residents are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their property, because of the possibility of an 18,000-seat arena, and because of recent events at Belmont, including a murder and a fatality, due to what appeared to be unsanitary conditions at the park. “Elmont residents have been begging for decades for the resources to clean up the backstretch,” Williams said. EDC allocated $500,000 in 2013 to begin the process, but then rescinded the allocation with no explanation, she said.
“When my family moved to the area in the late 60s, 35,000 people visited Belmont a day” during racing season, community activist Patrick Nicolosi said. “We really need to see that side of town cleaned up and developed in a way that brings back that kind of prosperity.”
“We’re a quiet middle-class community,” Williams said, who added that her organization isn’t opposed to development at Belmont Park. “We just want to be a part of the process.”