A plan to bring an off-track betting operation to downtown Danbury has become a political football and will continue to be kicked around following a second public hearing on April 25.
At issue is London-based gambling and entertainment company Sportech’s plan to add an approximately 1,200-square-foot OTB operation to the second floor of Two Steps Downtown Grille, a longtime fixture at 5 Ives St. Sportech – which has exclusive licensing rights to OTB in Connecticut – is spending $750,000 to renovate the eatery and has said that it will provide 1.6 percent of its gross revenue to CityCenter Danbury, the special taxing district formed by merchants in the late 1980s with the goal of drawing more people and business to the area. City officials have estimated that sum could be as much as $100,000 per year.
Under the terms of its 2010 agreement with the state, Sportech can operate 18 OTB venues in Connecticut, consisting of parimutuel wagering on horse racing, greyhound racing and jai alai. Sportech has 15 operations, with construction of one within Bobby V’s Restaurant and Sports Bar in Stamford expected to be completed in time for the June 8-10 Belmont Stakes.
A number of Danbury residents have been vocal in their objections to the Two Steps venture, which include moral and ethical concerns attached to any form of gambling, fears about drawing undesirable patrons to “Danbury’s backyard” – the family friendly CityCenter Green – and the perceived speed with which the city’s government has acted to amend its zoning regulations to allow OTB.
An April 11 Zoning Commission public hearing drew heat for apparently being sprung upon residents with little advance warning; that it coincided with Passover and the city’s school system’s annual spring break was also cause for objections. Inaccurate information about the meeting appeared on the city’s website, further raising suspicions that it was “a fait accompli,” according to Andrea Gartner. The former CityCenter executive director, who is now in the midst of opening Pour Me Coffee & Wine Café at 247 Main St., has effectively been leading the charge against the OTB site.
“Such fast-tracking is a red flag to me,” she told the Business Journal. “This is a deal made without the interest of other property owners in mind. There has been no poll, no survey, no focus groups, no letter of notice to any property owner that I know of. This is not government at its best.”
Also coming under fire is Two Steps owner Tom Devine, not so much for his restaurant’s involvement per se, but for the fact that he is the CityCenter chairman, giving rise to complaints that the project is a sweetheart deal and/or represents a conflict of interest.
“This was first brought to light two-and-a-half years ago, when it was being considered at another building down the block (owned by fellow CityCenter board member Manny Carreras),” Devine said. No objections were heard at that time, he said, either about bringing gambling to downtown or about a presumed conflict of interest.
When a financial arrangement could not be reached, Devine said, Carreras suggested that Devine consider getting involved. As to why he has been singled out for conflict of interest complaints, Devine said, “I have no idea.”
Devine noted that, although Sportech is seeking an allowance of up to 20 percent of existing square footage to be dedicated to OTB, the space at Two Steps would represent about 17 percent of its total 11,000 square feet. The first floor would remain a family friendly restaurant and bar, with both Sportech and Two Steps personnel on hand at the stairway and new elevator to prevent underage patrons from entering the OTB area.
With the April 11 hearing devolving into passionate debate on both sides, the Zoning Commission agreed to continue it at its April 25 meeting. Zoning Commission Chairman Robert Melillo warned both sides that the second meeting should not center upon either Two Steps or Devine himself, but instead on the question of whether OTB should be allowed in Danbury. He noted that by changing the zoning statutes, OTB could be allowed within any business in town, not just the specific site.
Still, Sportech attorney William Sweeney of TCORS in New London opened the discussion by presenting numerous letters attesting to Devine’s glowing reputation as a business owner and Two Steps’ significant stature in downtown. While innumerable restaurants have come and gone in downtown, Two Steps has been at Ives Street since 1991.
“In the amount of time we’ve been downtown, on this two-block radius there have been about 55 restaurants, bars and nightclubs that have come and gone,” Devine said. “Currently on the one block that we are on, out of the nine buildings, three are for sale and there are six empty storefronts.”
Among those testifying in favor of OTB at Two Steps were CityCenter Executive Director P.J. Prunty and one of Devine’s employees.
With discontent among opponents becoming more vocal during that testimony, Melillo stated that he would clear the City Council meeting room and invite people in “one at a time” if disruptions continued.
Opponents at what turned out to be a marathon – some two-and-a-half hours were spent on the subject, following three discussions on other nonrelated matters – included Gartner, longtime community activist Ken Gucker and Pastor Ken Brooks of Calvary Independent Baptist Church in nearby West Redding. The latter warned that, if gambling were to be allowed in Danbury, it could result in the same fate as that of Atlantic City.
“Gambling is a tax on stupidity,” he said.
Also voicing opposition were City Councilmen Duane Perkins and Paul Rotello. The latter wondered if the OTB in Brewster, N.Y. would feel obligated to increase its presence in the face of such competition, resulting in Sportech’s further expanding its Danbury presence. He also raised the specter of restaurants near schools feeling free to add OTBs to their menus, which he deemed “inappropriate.”
In his rebuttal, Sweeney denied that Sportech would feel any real competition from Brewster and underscored that Danbury already allows Keno, scratch-off lottery games and other state-sanctioned forms of gambling.
In an earlier conversation with the Business Journal, Gartner said that Sportech has proposed adding slot machines to its operation in Windsor Locks. “So is this a foothold to other gambling in Danbury?” she asked. “They say no, that legislation for that would be required by the state – but quite frankly that’s no guarantee.”
“What we have been saying for the last couple of years is that a quicker and cleaner solution for the need to provide a third casino between Hartford and the new MGM Casino in Springfield that is due to open fall 2018, would be to extend our already large place at Windsor Locks,” Sportech Venues President Ted Taylor told the Business Journal. “Because it is already a big site, with adjacent properties that would be willing to work with us to extend parking, etc., it would work for us.”
Adding slot machines to the much smaller space at Two Steps was not part of Sportech’s plan, he said.
The April 25 meeting ended with the Zoning Commission formally closing the public hearing process, but declining Sweeney’s request for an immediate vote. If the commission does approve, the matter would go before the City Council.
Rotello said that, with an overwhelming majority of Republicans on the City Council – 15 belong to the GOP, with six, including Rotello and Perkins, Democrats – and with the support of Republican Mayor Mark Boughton, a “yes” vote by the Zoning Commission would essentially be a rubber stamp for City Council approval. Sweeney maintained that the City Council is a separate body and that Zoning should focus on its own mandate.
“It’s fairly unusual for the Republicans on the council to vote against what the mayor wants,” Rotello told the Business Journal.
Still, he said, “Two weeks ago I would have predicted a vote of 20 to 1 in favor” of OTB, “with me voting against it. I’m not so sure now. I think some minds might have been changed at the earlier meeting, given all the concerns that were raised.”
Should Sportech’s petition be approved in short order, Devine estimated that following renovations to his building, approval of a new liquor license and other processes, OTB could open by November.