10/28/2010 4:37PM

Casino ground broken at Aqueduct ceremony


OZONE PARK, N.Y. – At 12:05 p.m. Thursday – a mere 3,291 days after legislation passed allowing casinos to be built at New York racetracks – the New York Racing Association’ chairman, Steven Duncker, stood in a corner of the first floor of Aqueduct, wearing a hard hat and safety goggles and holding a mallet.

A minute later, Duncker, along with politicians, union workers, and officials from the Malaysian-based company Genting New York, smashed individual square blocks of concrete in a ceremonial groundbreaking of a casino many felt would never be built.

Though the start of real construction remains several weeks away, the reality of a casino at Aqueduct – one that will include 4,525 slot machines by the fall of 2011 – has started to sink in. The first phase of the project, which is likely to include 3,000 slot machines, is scheduled for completion by next Memorial Day.

“We still got a ways to go until it opens, but I couldn’t be more excited.” Duncker said afterward.

The casino project will create 2,100 jobs and bring New York State $300 million in revenue and the racing industry $60 million annually.

A standing-room-only crowd that included dozens of labor workers, and future slots players who were bussed in from senior centers throughout Queens, attended the ceremony, which included speeches from seven politicians led by Gov. David Paterson.

Paterson, along with heads of the senate and assembly, ultimately signed off on Genting after the state’s initial recommended operator, Aqueduct Entertainment Group, was turned down. But in Genting, which operates casinos worldwide and owns Norwegian Cruise Lines, state and racing officials believe they are getting the most qualified and deepest-pocketed casino operator they could find. Genting paid the state $380 million for the right to run the casino and plans to invest $1.3 billion more in construction and other costs, which include a makeover of the Aqueduct facility.

“In a process riddled with obstacles and obscurity, in the end we made the right choice,” Paterson said.

“This company is so far superior to everything else,” said Michael Dubb, a prominent New York owner who is also in the construction business. “We were just ready to settle – give us anything – and here we got a world-class company that showed up with the money that has an ambitious construction schedule. The only problem here is if something seems to be good to be true, it probably is, but they’re the real deal.”

The casino will be built on the first and second floors of the Aqueduct grandstand. The first floor will house roughly 2,700 slot machines, many of which are expected to be installed during phase one of the project, which is expected to take six months. An additional 1,800 machines will be built on the second floor, which is expected to be part of phase two, to be completed in one year.

According to Bill Dow, of JCJ Architecture, which will do the construction, the seats on the second floor of the grandstand will be removed and replaced by a flat terrace on which fans can go out on and watch the races.

Within 18 months, the project will be concluded with a seven-story parking garage that can house 2,800 cars. Also, Genting is seeking to build an enclosed skybridge from the nearby subway station to the casino, though that must be done in concert with the financially troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority.