Hard Rock Adds Johnson to New York VLT Bid

Billionaire Robert L. Johnson founded BET.

Hard Rock International has added a potent new force – an entity run by billionaire Robert L. Johnson – to its team to try to win the exclusive rights to develop the long-stalled casino at Aqueduct racetrack.

Caribbean CAGE, which seeks to expand video lottery gambling across Latin American nations, is joining the consortium that includes Hard Rock and SL Green Realty Corp., a major real estate development firm in Manhattan.

The July 29 announcement was made while bidders vying for the casino deal are this week holding a round of financial talks with officials representing Gov. David Paterson, whose approval, along with two legislative leaders, is needed for the project to proceed.

Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, became the nation’s first black billionaire after selling BET to Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion.

“Bob Johnson is a true global pioneer in media, music and entertainment, and we are ecstatic that Caribbean CAGE will be an equity investor in the Hard Rock Casino Aqueduct development,’’ Hard Rock chairman Jim Allen said in a statement.

Details on the various casino offerings have been elusive after the Paterson administration asked bidders weeks ago to keep information about their bids private. Hard Rock said its bid would generate $525 million a year for the state in revenue sharing from what it said would be more than 4,500 VLT devices. State law has capped the number of VLTs at the track at 4,500.

Hard Rock, owned by Florida’s Seminole Indian tribe, said it will also build a performance center, a Hard Rock bar, and a VIP players club along with shops, restaurants, and a food court.

Headquartered in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Caribbean CAGE was co-founded by Johnson in 2004 and is part of RLJ Cos., which Johnson owns; RLJ owns everything from hotels to the Carolina Bobcats NBA basketball team.

“My background in entertainment, marketing, and media makes this a perfect match,” Johnson said in a statement.

Paterson, the state’s first black governor, has not said when a decision will be made, though documents bidders had to fill out more than a month ago said they should assume a decision will be made by Aug. 1. Now, bidders are being told a decision is more likely to come after the end of the Saratoga meet in September.

The Aqueduct casino was first approved shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks by state officials desperate, they said at the time, for cash for the government.

The Hard Rock consortium is up against five other bidders, including groups led by Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, Penn National Gaming, and Delaware North.

Wynn and his entourage quietly met at the state Capitol July 29 with senior aides from the governor's counsel's office and budget division, along with state lottery and legislative officials. "He is quite a salesman,'' said one participant in the meeting that lasted nearly two hours. Paterson, who was out of town, did not attend the meeting in a conference room down the hall from his office.

No word on how much in up-front payments Wynn is offering the state, but he did float the idea of returning 94% of VLT betting dollars to gamblers -- instead of the current 92% envisioned for the Aqueduct casino -- as a way to lure more patrons to the facility that Wynn believes will will end up making more money for the state, purses, and the casino operators, source said.

Among those helping Wynn is Jerry A. Weiss, a seasoned Albany lawyer whose firm has been retained by Wynn for lobbying and consulting work. Weiss was a senior government and campaign advisor over the years to former Gov. Mario Cuomo and his son, Andrew Cuomo, the state's current attorney general, worked for Weiss's law firm in the 1980s. Weiss, who attended the meeting July 29, declined comment.

Officials with the bidding team insisted it could break ground immediately on the delayed casino because its construction plans match plans already on the books and approved by the various regulatory bodies. They said 2,000 VLTs could be running by next April with the remainder by 2011.