Riverhead Supervisor: Resorts would kill casino, racing buzz in Calverton

04/08/2010 12:00 AM |

A casino and a racetrack are two things that have been frequently suggested for the Enterprise Park at Calverton ever since Riverhead Town took possession of the land from the U.S. Navy some 15 years ago.

But neither will be coming to the EPCAL site in Calverton if the town is able to finalize its proposed deal to sell 755 acres there to Riverhead Resorts, said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

The land on which either of those projects would go is the same land being sought by the Riverhead Resorts group, which hopes to build eight themed resorts, including one with an indoor ski mountain, Mr. Walter said.

Still, racing enthusiasts, at least, aren’t giving up without a fight. Even talks of a casino at EPCAL have ratcheted up lately as the Shinnecock Indians draw closer to federal recognition as a tribe, which is necessary before they can built a casino. A county legislative committee recently even identified EPCAL as a potential site for a Shinnecock casino. (Casinos are illegal in New York State, but those laws do not apply to Indian land.)

Mr. Walter said no one from the Shinnecocks has spoken to him about putting a casino in Calverton, and Mitch Pally, an attorney for Riverhead Resorts, said they have no intention of building one there.

“We are not planning to have a casino at the site,” Mr. Pally said. “There’s a clause in our contract with the town that prohibits casinos.”

And Mr. Walter said the town wants to finalize the deal with Riverhead Resorts this year, because the money is needed to close a budget deficit that’s expected to reach at least $7 million. If an Indian group sought to build a casino at EPCAL, it would take about two years to annex the land onto tribal owned land, he said. In addition, Indian casinos don’t pay property taxes, but instead work out agreements for payments that often are split with other municipalities as well.

“The taxpayers can’t wait that long for something to happen at EPCAL,” Mr. Walter said.

Former Supervisor Phil Cardinale had said that both the Shinnecocks and the Poospatucks of Mastic had spoken to him about the potential for a casino in Calverton when he was supervisor.

Because Riverhead Resorts is now seeking to lower the amount it pays the town for the 755 acres from the originally agreed upon $155 million to $108 million, it must undergo a new public hearing to determine if the company is a “qualified and eligible sponsor.” That process seeks to determine if the applicant has the finances and ability to carry out the project it has proposed. Riverhead Resorts already was declared qualified and eligible by the town two years ago when the price was $155 million.

Still, the prospect of a new hearing on Riverhead Resorts has racetrack enthusiasts gearing up again.

Riverhead Resorts was one of two applicants the town had considered selling the 755 acres to in 2007. The other was a group called Rexcorp, headed by developer Scott Rechler. That proposal had an auto-racing component, and racing enthusiasts often filled town meetings at the time urging the town to chose Rexcorp’s proposal.

Marty Johnson, president of Long Island Motorsports Association, says they still hope to convince the town to go with a racing proposal at EPCAL instead of Riverhead Resorts. Mr. Johnson said he plans to speak at the new hearing on Riverhead Resorts and he hopes other racing enthusiasts do too.

“The way I see it, they’ve got to start over again,” Mr. Johnson said. He believes the town should have to seek new bids for the EPCAL site, although town officials say the EPCAL offers they received were the result of a request for proposals, and not a bidding process.

“The last time, we had 9,800 signed letters in support of the racetrack,” Mr. Johnson said. “There were only 298 in support of the ski park.”

He said auto racing is easily more popular than skiing, and that other indoor ski facilities have been unsuccessful. The one proposed and largely completed as part of a shopping center in the New Jersey Meadowlands still hasn’t opened and has had financial difficulties, he said.

A number of residents of Calverton and Wading River had urged the town to support Riverhead Resorts three years ago.

Mr. Johnson said he’s trying to get Bruton Smith, who built the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, to submit a proposal for EPCAL. He envisions a motor-sports complex that also includes a school to teach kids about driving safety.

“We’re not giving up on this,” he said.

He said the town twice denied his group’s applications to race on the unused 10,000-foot runway at EPCAL during Mr. Cardinale’s administration and once during Mr. Walter’s. They’ve even tried contacting Riverhead Resorts about changing their plan to include racing, he said, adding that Riverhead Resorts won’t talk to them.

“They call me all the time,” Mr. Walter said of the motor-sports enthusiasts. As with the casino, he said, the town has no formal proposal pending to build a racetrack at EPCAL and no time to wait for one.

He said the majority of the Town Board is committed to finishing the Riverhead Resorts deal this year.

Mr. Pally said Riverhead Resorts also has assured the town that it is committed to that same schedule.

The only other land zoned for recreation at EPCAL is about 70 acres on the southeast corner of the property, which is likely way too small for a racing or casino facility. Foxwoods Resort Casino, for example, uses about 900 acres just for golf courses.

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