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Delaware North upbeat after meeting with casino foe

Delaware North executives met in Buffalo Tuesday with the sole state official blocking their effort to win the rights to develop a sprawling new casino at a downstate racetrack.

The issue, meanwhile, increasingly became part of the bitter State Senate races in Western New York, with Democrats accusing Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican, of holding up a plan that could benefit the Buffalo company.

But a spokesman for Skelos, who last Friday said he could not support the Delaware North proposal unless it included more sweeping economic development plans around the track to benefit the Queens community, sought to turn the controversy back onto Gov. David A. Paterson.

Paterson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on Friday said they supported the Delaware North plan to build a casino with 4,500 slot machines at Aqueduct racetrack. The company offered $370 million in upfront franchise fees to the state, more than its two competitors.

"If they have a criticism, it ought to be directed at the governor, who jumped the gun on an announcement," said John McArdle, a Skelos spokesman. He said Paterson inappropriately sent word out that he was backing Delaware North when he knew Skelos -- who also has to approve the plan -- still had concerns that it did not offer enough in the way of making the site a major destination spot with a hotel and retail and entertainment space to accompany the casino.

"It was a surprise to everyone since the due diligence hadn't been completed," McArdle said of the Paterson announcement.

The Paterson administration defended its decision to back Delaware North.

"For months the three parties discussed and closely reviewed each of the three packages, a process which included multiple meetings with each of the bidders. Gov. Paterson has made a decision in the best interests of the state and is joined in that decision by Speaker Silver. We look forward to Sen. Skelos joining in that determination," said Risa Heller, a Paterson spokeswoman.

McArdle said the meeting between Skelos and Delaware North executives Tuesday in Buffalo was "very productive."

"It was a good meeting. Maybe they should have done it sooner," he said.

Skelos told the company executives to now work with community leaders in Queens to get them to better understand their plan for the site. As for a decision timetable, McArdle said that will depend on the company's success in getting backing in Queens.

The stakes are high for Delaware North. It is trying to be the first casino operator in New York City, in a facility projected to have more than $450 million a year in gross revenues. "We were very encouraged with the meeting," William Bissett, president of Delaware North's gaming and entertainment subsidiary, said of his session with Skelos.

Delaware North is competing against two other groups for the Aqueduct deal -- Manhattan developer SL Green, whose partners include Hard Rock Entertainment, and Capital Play, whose major partner is the Connecticut casino Mohegan Sun.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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