Introduced by Borough President Helen Marshall as the “King of Queens,” Gov. Cuomo played up his roots when he came to the borough on Thursday to push his agenda that includes building the nation’s largest convention center at Aqueduct and overhauling the state’s education system.
“I am a Queens boy, through and through,” Cuomo, who grew up in Holliswood, told the packed auditorium in Queens College’s LeFrak Concert Hall in Flushing. “My first apartment was in Sunnyside. Queens is everything in one borough, all flavors; the entire mosaic of this country is in Queens.”
But Queens is more than just Cuomo’s home borough —it’s playing a pivotal role in the governor’s plan for the next year as the potential home for a massive $4 billion convention center that would be built next to the Aqueduct Racetrack in South Ozone Park. Genting, the Malaysian-based company that operates the casino at Aqueduct, would build and run the convention center — which has landed the governor some heavy criticism. Some legislators, including Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills), have questioned why the state did not issue a request for proposals for the project, to which Cuomo has said Genting already owns much of the land needed for construction, though not all, and is willing to entirely fund the center’s $4 billion price tag.
“The state wouldn’t put in a dollar, and we wouldn’t have to pick up a shovel,” Cuomo said to reporters after the speech he gave at the college last Thursday morning.
When questioned if there could also be a convention center at Willets Point — for which Mayor Bloomberg has been a vocal proponent —Cuomo essentially evaded the question, saying, “This is a separate proposal from that.”
While the city has not said a center at the Iron Triangle is a moot point now that the country’s largest convention site could be built a few short miles away, Marshall said in an interview with this paper after Cuomo’s address that there will be “no convention center in Willets Point for sure.” However, she soon backtracked, announcing in her State of the Borough speech this week that two convention centers in Queens are possible.
Marshall also said that while she supports a center at Aqueduct, she’s “worried if they do half of it, it’ll take years to get the second half.”
According to preliminary plans, the center would be broken into two construction phases, the first of which would include about 1,000 hotel rooms, theater and entertainment components, approximately three million feet of convention and exhibition space, the expansion of video lottery terminal gaming space and a parking facility. Construction on the first phase could wrap up as early as the end of 2014.
Once complete, the convention center could have as many as 3,000 hotel rooms.
Cuomo also pushed his proposal for the state to amend its constitution and legalize casino gaming.
“The state constitution prohibits the state from opening casinos, and the state has gone into the racino business,” Cuomo said. “What is a racino? It’s a casino with an ‘R.’ They use electronic machines, but these machines do everything you can do in a casino. We have tribal casinos, and we have racino facilities all over the state. We have 29,000 electronic gaming machines —more than Atlantic City. We’re in the gaming business, so we should do it right.”
Reforming the state’s education system is also one of the governor’s top priorities, and he emphasized on Thursday that he plans to tie aid from Albany to school districts with implementing new teacher evaluations that have drawn ire from unions.
“One of the important lessons I learned in my first year as governor is everyone in Albany has a lobbyist,” Cuomo said. “I learned school superintendents have a lobbyist; principals have a lobbyist; teachers have lobbyists. You know the only group that doesn’t have lobbyists? Students. This year, I’m going to take a second job. I’m going to be the governor of New York, and I’m going to be the students’ lobbyist.”
Saying that “education has become more about business interests than students’ interests,” Cuomo said he would withhold a portion of state aid to school districts that do not implement teacher evaluation systems that focus heavily on “results,” such as test scores. The governor noted that the state is in danger of losing $700 million in federal education aid that it received in 2010 with the condition that teacher evaluations be implemented throughout New York.
“Still to this day, there are no teacher evaluations,” Cuomo said. “The bureaucracy doesn’t want to implement the evaluations. The federal government has said, ‘We want our money back because you haven’t done the evaluations.’”
While there were no protests outside the college for Cuomo’s visit, he did encounter at least one dissenter during his trip.
“Mic check, mic check,” said Queens College professor Grace Davie, interrupting Cuomo’s speech. “I want the government to do even more for the 99 percent.”
After Davie, who teaches African history and the history of non-violent movements, told Cuomo she’d be “very brief,” an irked looking governor responded with, “so will I.”
Another major tenet of Cuomo’s plan for the coming year is repairing bridges and roadways.
“I want to do more infrastructure repair than has been done in modern political history,” Cuomo said of his plan to work on as many as 100 bridges and 2,000 miles of roadway in the state.
He added that the state plans to finance upgrades to JFK International and LaGuardia airports.
When speaking with reporters, Cuomo also noted that he’s calling in his budget proposal to reinstate the toll rebate for residents of Broad Channel and the Rockaways.
College students at the address said they hope the governor reduces tuition at public universities.
“My mom got laid off, my dad’s working part-time and it’s really difficult for students to find jobs with flexible schedules, so it’s really hard to pay for my education,” said Emily December, of Woodhaven. “As a full-time student, I pay $2,500 each semester, but that’s going to go up $300 every year beginning this year. That’s a lot, and I feel it’s pushing away students.”