Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Or, as some residents are saying, people of Queens, we won’t be in South Ozone Park anymore.
Gov. Cuomo’s proposal in his State of the State address last week to build the country’s largest convention center in South Ozone Park has opened up a floodgate of criticism — as well as praise — from area residents, some of whom worry the structure that is expected to hold as many as 3,000 hotel rooms will turn their neighborhood upside down, leaving them with an area congested by millions of visitors and no longer recognizable as the South Ozone Park they once knew.
Still, others said the center would generate much needed jobs — about 10,000 permanent ones and another 10,000 in construction — in the borough and bring the kind of tourism that had previously been reserved for Manhattan.
The $4 billion center would be entirely funded and run by Genting Americas, which operates the Resorts World Casino New York City that would be situated next to the convention site.
The New York International Convention and Exhibition Center, as Genting is calling it, would total around 3.8 million square feet and include gaming, hotel rooms and entertainment. It would replace Manhattan’s Javits Center as the city’s sole convention spot.
“I don’t think the neighborhood can handle it,” said Ozone Park Civic Association President Howie Kamph. “To bring in something like that will triple the traffic, at least. There’s too much traffic on Rockaway Boulevard just with the casino.”
Genting had in June unveiled preliminary plans to the state for a convention center, but residents, and legislators, said they were completely taken by surprise by the proposed size of it.
“I was surprised by the news,” Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park) said at the Community Board 9 meeting Tuesday night. “I would’ve liked to have known about it sooner.”
Still, Goldfeder, as well as pretty much every Queens legislator who spoke on the topic, said he was cautiously optimistic about the center.
“The proposal to build the largest convention center in the nation at Aqueduct is an ambitious plan that must be undertaken responsibly and appropriately with real community involvement and participation,” Goldfeder said.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) also emphasized the need to include residents in the planning process.
“One message is very clear —we don’t move a step forward without public input,” Addabbo said.
Cuomo did not communicate with residents, or area legislators, before signing a letter of intent to build the center with Genting on Jan. 3, a day before the State of the State. There was no competitive bid process for the center.
“The bottom line is that this is a low risk, high reward business opportunity for the state,” Cuomo wrote in a Jan. 10 letter to legislators.
According to preliminary plans, the center would be broken into two construction phases, the first of which would include 1,000 hotel rooms, theater and entertainment components and 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 end as early as the end of 2014.
Genting has a lease on all the land expected to be used for the first phase. It would, however, require additional land beyond the 67 acres currently under lease to Genting for the second phase. Cuomo noted that the Port Authority controls an adjoining 22 acres which Genting is considering for an additional 2,000 hotel rooms and approximately a half million more square feet of convention and meeting space.
“Genting is prepared to work with the relevant labor unions and execute a project labor agreement,” Cuomo wrote in the Jan. 10 letter. “They will also work with the local communities and local governments on zoning, and meet or exceed all state [Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise] requirements.”
Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, had one of the sunniest takes on the center, calling Cuomo’s announcement a “great day for the people of Queens County.”
“For almost a decade, the Queens Chamber of Commerce advocated a first-class convention center built in Queens,” Friedman said.
Carol Conslato, the chamber’s president who attended the speech, called the convention center a “huge victory for the borough of Queens.”
Other civic leaders were more cautious in their approach.
“We’re looking at the proposal, we believe it has some merit, but of course there’s a lot of details yet to review,” said Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton. “Overall, we look forward to working with the Genting company as whatever is going to develop at Aqueduct comes to pass.”
Others, like CB 9 Chairwoman Andrea Crawford and Ozone Park civic activist Dave Quintana, said they didn’t believe South Ozone Park was the right place for a massive convention center.
“New York City is too expensive for major conventions, but conventions that do come to New York City want to come to the heart of Manhattan,” Crawford said during the CB 9 meeting.
Quintana also questioned the location, though he said “it’s bringing jobs to the community, and that’s what we wanted.”
New York Post columnist Kyle Smith raised the ire of Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), Goldfeder and a number of Ozone Park residents when he dismissed the neighborhood as a place in the “far reaches of Queens” that no tourist would seek out.
While Ulrich has said through a spokesman that he’s waiting for more details before taking a position on the center, he slammed Smith for his harsh words on Ozone Park.
“This article is simply outrageous,” Ulrich wrote in a comment on the Post’s website. “I have never read such an inaccurate, despicable piece of garbage in my life. The author is clearly looking down from his ivory tower and has no clue when it comes to Ozone Park.”