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Cuomo first introduced his plan to build the country’s largest convention center at the site of the Aqueduct Raceway in Queens during his State of the State message. One day before, he had quietly signed a deal with Genting, the international gambling conglomerate, to privately finance the $4 billion project. Genting, based in Malaysia, already operates gambling at the race track in the form of video lottery terminals, which are slot like machines that are an extension of the state’s lottery contests. It’s currently the only legal way for slot type machines to exist in New York.
In his speech the governor said the deal was all about creating jobs and increasing the state’s prestige. The state has just the 12th largest convention center.
“We’ll go from number twelve to number one because that’s where we deserve to be,” said Cuomo.
Since then the governor has had to defend the deal over criticism that it was conceived in secret, that convention centers these days lose more money than they earn and misunderstandings about who would pay for the project.
A Siena College poll found that most voters, by a wide margin, were against the idea of the new convention center. Siena’s Steve Greenberg says only 38% are in favor of the project. 57% are opposed.
Cuomo admits that the proposal needs to be better explained and that many New Yorkers mistakenly believe that taxpayers have to foot the bill for the project.
“When you say, ‘should the state build a convention center,?’ the answer is no,” said Cuomo. “Because it sounds like a big expensive government boondoggle.”
But Cuomo says, that is not the case with the Aqueduct project.
“This is a highly successful private sector company that does this all around the globe exquisitely well,” said Cuomo. “That’s a different question.”
The governor made that point again, in his budget address.
“It’s $4 billion of economic activity to the state, with virtually zero as an investment from the state,” Cuomo said.
Genting issued a statement saying that the company is “confident” that once New Yorkers understand that the project will be financed “without a dime of taxpayer money” and would create tens of thousands of jobs, the support will be “robust.”
The poll did not explain the financing arrangement for the convention center in its question, and Siena’s Greenberg says those details will be included in the next poll. But he says the survey response also shows that the governor has some more work to do.
“He’s got a selling job to do to convince voters that what he’s proposing is the right thing,” says Greenberg, who notes that Cuomo has already taken to the road to present his budget to more regions of the state.
“Let’s see what impact it has,” Greenberg said.
The Queens convention center plan would also allow the state to use the site of the much smaller Jacob Javits convention center on the West side of Manhattan for other development purposes, and the sale of the valuable state owned parcel to private developers could bring the state billions of dollars in revenues.
At the same time that he proposes the convention center project, Cuomo is also seeking to amend the state’s constitution to fully legalize gambling in New York. The governor says he has not promised Genting any special deals to operate a full blown casino, should the constitutional amendment be approved, and he says the convention center plans will go forward on a separate track.