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Belmont trots out customer service improvements

In the past weeks could be devoted to how a misplaced pebble reached the storied race track at Belmont Park in Elmont, L.I., but a hole in the wall or a messy bathroom in the lobby could go unnoticed for months, an executive with the New York Racing Association said Monday.

"We were about the horse and the guy that liked the horse," said Gavin Landry, senior vice president of marketing for the NYRA. "What we thought was important wasn't important."

Now with the park's racing season scheduled to begin Wednesday and the Belmont Stakes only six weeks away, Belmont is readjusting its priorities and expanding its focus to the people in the stands, picnic areas and betting rooms.

NYRA, the non-profit organization that operates Belmont Park and the Aqueduct Race Track in South Ozone Park, spent roughly $2.5 million in subtle renovations at Belmont and expanded the park's customer service department. These measures were enacted in an attempt to attract more visitors to the racetrack while also creating a cleaner and friendlier environment.

The revamped customer service department and renovations come at a time when NYRA begins a new 25-year lease on Belmont. The state renewed the association's lease late last year, but the association is also operating under bankruptcy protection. Judge James M. Peck of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York confirmed NYRA's reorganization plan Monday. All these factors led to the changes at Belmont.

"If you've been in bankruptcy for a very long time, it's time to raise the bar a little," said Hal Handel, NYRA's chief operating officer. "We realized that we have to do more."

The renovations range from remodeled rest rooms in the lobby to restoring a colorful mural on the second floor. The building's woodwork was refinished and resanded to expunge the smell of cigarette smoke that permeated the building for years. The park's VIP betting room was revamped with several flatscreen TVs. More picnic tables were placed outside to make the park more family-oriented.

A large oak customer service counter was placed at the entrance gates in the lobby. With the words "Welcome to Belmont" and "Hospitality Center," the counter emphasizes the park's attempt to provide better service to visitors, Landry said.

"We've forgotten what it means to take care of our guests," he said.

NYRA began taking steps to change its relationship with customers in February when the association met with about 60 of the park's loyal customers and discussed ways to revamp the park. The association also responded to a number of complaints posted on the track's Web site with a survey that addressed the customers' complaints.

The results of both confirmed what the team already knew: "The place isn't clean. The folks aren't friendly," Handel said.

The team then started to takes steps to address the complaints. The funds for the changes came from cuts taken in NYRA's budget and a state loan, Handel said, adding that the association will continue to make improvements at Belmont every year for the next few years.

Reach reporter Katy Gagnon by e-mail at kgagnon@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300 Ext 174.

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