Lessons Learned From Casino Fight

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Local residents protested against the creation of a casino-like gambling parlor.
Local residents protested against the creation of a casino-like gambling parlor.

On Jan. 31, Nassau OTB announced that it was dropping its plan to use the former Fortunoff building in a dying Westbury mall as a casino-style gambling parlor. This does not mean that anyone gets to stop paying attention.

The rails were greased and this thing was going through, and a few Republican elected officials were “let off the hook” and allowed to issue weak statements in opposition, including the County Executive. Despite assurances from the OTB Board to the Republican majority in the county legislature, it became clear that they could not ride this out without losing at least one district and putting at least one more in jeopardy. The protests and petitions, growing in size and intensity, were almost entirely organized in neighborhoods like Breezy Hill and Carle Place. Things weren’t even rolling yet in neighborhoods further up Old Country Road and Merrick Avenue that are less important to the artificially engineered G.O.P. “control” of the legislature. Gerrymandered, packed legislative districts cut both ways.

For the exact same reason, the minute state casino siting officials give in on concerns about how it might affect the parlor at Aqueduct, there will be ribbon cuttings for the video casino at Belmont, which is surrounded by highway and by neighborhoods that play little or no role in maintaining the Republican position in Nassau County government. If that happens, the good citizens of communities that dodged this bullet should remember that this is not just another neighborhood zoning beef. There are bigger issues at stake.

We still have this rogue agency, with powers of zoning, planning and self-oversight that cannot be checked by any authority responsible to the public. If state legislators and county legislators will not act to reign in OTB, other local governments and citizens must if it chooses to strike again. It’s a good chance to demonstrate, in honor of Dr. King and the Selma anniversary, what coordinated boycotts and embargoes can accomplish.

This is an agency that should no longer exist. Nassau doesn’t need this quasi-independent entity floating around. Originally, off-track betting was directed by a county government agency, but for reasons that had little to do with Long Island, the state created regional betting agencies. Nassau and Suffolk got their own agencies for political reasons that no longer make sense and which can be justified today only as convenient shields from public oversight and scrutiny.

All the OTB operations in New York have been a gross disappointment since Day One. Horse racing never generating projected revenues and as an industry is headed in the wrong direction, which is why we’re seeing this surreptitious move to casinos. OTB was never meant for this. Our prestigious sister suburb of Westchester is just one New York county that has no OTB operation at all, yet Scarsdale remains inhabited.

Meanwhile, the communities along the Old Country Road corridor still see basically four giant walls on one of America’s 500 failing suburban malls, already supplanted by newer, adjacent shopping venues. Some other suburban governments are working with developers and other stakeholders to turn old malls inside-out, “re-inhabit” them and connect them to surrounding communities. Dead malls can become the interesting places that attract young residents and new, innovative businesses. The Nassau County plan was to raise a fence around the casino building, with security cameras and security patrols. Next door is a series of gated communities and shopping centers and parking lots. The hub.

Planners from around the country are visiting and studying what they’re trying to do with malls in upscale, prestigious zip codes like Hyattsville, MD, and Lakewood, CO. These are suburbs facing the changes in this country and the challenges to the suburban form.

Some ideas can be applied here.  At this rate, we’ll never know.Michael Miller

Michael Miller (mmillercolumn@gmail.com) has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

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