10:30 am Oct. 26, 2012
As it turns out, Phillip Goldfeder, an assemblyman from Rockaway, and Resorts World Casino, an operation owned by a Malaysian many-billion-dollar, multinational gambling conglomerate named Genting Group, have a lot in common.
"It's befitting that essentially I share an anniversary with this facility," said Goldfeder, at the one-year celebration for the building full of slot machines in Ozone Park. "It's been almost just over a year since I was elected to office. And what makes it so befitting is that I think that I, together with Resorts World, share a lot of the same principles. How can we find the right partners, work with the community to make this city, this state a better place."
It was a bit after 11 a.m. on Thursday, and Goldfeder, who, according to state records, has received more than $10,000 from Genting and its New York president Michael Speller in the past two years, was speaking from a stage in the new, black-ceilinged "showroom" on the racino's fourth floor. Arrayed before him were elected officials, community members, Resorts World employees, and the press.
Cat Greenleaf, the blonde, irrepressibly perky NBC personality, shepherded a succession of politicians across the stage.
Among them was Representative Gregory Meeks, who has been dogged by various federal investigations, and who she described as serving his community with a "dedication and a flair that is unparalleled."
"I could take you with me everywhere," joked Meeks appreciatively, before beginning to talk about what he variously referred to as a "state-of-the-art facility" and "a world-class entertainment center in Queens."
"I can remember when this was just a dream," said Meeks, who previously backed an effort by the Rev. Floyd Flake to win the slot-machine franchise at Aqueduct, which Governor Paterson initially granted, until the state deemed the bidders "unlicensable."
By the time Meeks finished telling the audience about Resorts World, he had used the word "dream" nine more times.
State Senator Joe Addabbo, who has received more than $12,000 from Genting and Speller in the last two years, said the Aqueduct's rise from run-down racetrack to racino has proven a "tremendous, tremendous ride," while Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, whose face was largely blocked from the audience by the microphone, called Resorts World "a palace packed with excitement."
Its $665 million contribution to state education, made up of its $380 million franchise fee plus taxes?
"Magnificent," Marshall said.
Certainly, Resorts World Casino has proven a success for Resorts World and those it employs, and for the state, if you put aside the thorny gambling-related questions about the social costs of this means of revenue generation.
As Speller, Genting New York's dapper British president, pointed out on Thursday, it has in the mere span of a year become the largest slot operation in the country, with a gross revenue of more than $650 million on slots alone.
Genting pays a pretty high price to the state for the right to operate. Its tax rate is, according to the casino, nearly 70 percent, thanks, in part, to the 44 percent going to education, and the 15 percent propping up the horseracing industry.
Genting has also hired nearly 1,800 of what it calls "team members," which is, according to Speller, more than it originally anticipated even though, as the Daily News recently reported, it has also created fewer local jobs than originally promised.
Much of the casino's revenue is believed to come from gamblers who might otherwise go out of state.
That has been one of the key arguments behind Governor Andrew Cuomo's push for what would amount to a massive upgrade for Resorts World and other would-be casino operators, amending the state constitution to allow for table games at up to seven full-scale casinos in New York State.
Resorts World once figured even more prominently in Cuomo's "economic development" plans.
During his January State of the State address, Cuomo touted a proposal by Resorts World to build the largest convention center in the country at Aqueduct.
In that same speech, he called for the legalization of casino gambling, something that Genting had been lobbying hard for.
In order to legalize table games in New York State, the legislature will have to endorse a constitutional amendment to that effect twice, and then it will go to the voters in a referendum.
This year, the state legislature passed the first of those approvals, calling for the creation of up to seven table gaming licenses statewide.
But since January, Cuomo and Genting have had a falling out of sorts, and it's not clear whether Genting will be winning one of those franchises. Nor, for that matter, is the status of the convention center clear.
Nevertheless, Resorts World's one-year anniversary celebration, the substantial energy it has put into generating positive press, not to mention the significant sums of money it has invested in lobbying and campaign donations, all seem to indicate that Genting still badly wants to stay in the game.
Following the speeches and the presentation of a "ceremonial check" worth $500,000 to a bunch of nonprofits, I asked Speller about the status of his table-game and convention-center negotiations with the Cuomo administration.
He gave a frank non-answer.
"Obviously we talked about that at length through the year, and today, going forward, I don't have an answer for you as to how that outcome may be," he said.
Behind him was a cake in the shape of Resorts World.
Nearby, celebrants ate sliders and baked goods from the restaurants downstairs.
The more gregarious among them posed for pictures with a living Statue of Liberty and a Lady Gaga impersonator named Devon Cass.
Whether or not Resorts World gets proper table games, it has plans to grow its existing business.
On Thursday, Speller announced that a long-planned covered conduit connecting the casino to the nearby subway station would be complete in November, and that Resorts World would soon be rolling out a new 15-minute shuttle bus to the subway station in Jamaica and more than 100 buses a day from the city's four Chinatowns. It will also be doubling the number of buses serving Manhattan and Long Island.
During the elaborate celebration, which also featured a Chinese dancer, and a live version of a new Resorts World advertisement—complete with a chubby actor dancing with a bevy of much-hotter women—little mention was made of the true financiers of that morning's extravaganza: the customers plying the one-armed bandits down below.
At about 1 p.m. that weekday, the third floor "Fifth Avenue Casino," was busy, but not mobbed.
Darryl Natt, a 38-year-old barber from Jamaica, Queens, sat at a slot machine, absentmindedly sucking on a sweatshirt drawstring, wearing an off-center Houston Astros cap.
He used to go to Atlantic City to gamble.
"A lot of nice things going on here," he told me. "It's just a good place to go when you ain't got nothing to do."
A couple days ago, he won $750.
Nearby, Tessieann Votsis played the Moon Festival slot machine.
Votsis is a youthful, very nice 79-year-old former executive secretary. She's been married 58 years, lives in Whitestone, and, with her husband, has visited Resorts World several times.
"The food is good," she said, the whir of machines creating a numbing noise around her. "It's pleasant, it's close to home."
She said it also has a much greater variety of slot machines than the racino in Yonkers.
What does she like about coming to Resorts World?
"The waiting," she said. "The anticipation of whether I'm going to get something."
Then she returned to the game.
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