When the New York State Legislature approved a constitutional amendment last March that would authorize up to seven new full-scale gambling casinos in the state, one of the first locations floated for the multi-billion initiative was Brooklyn’s historic Coney Island. Though the amendment must still be passed by lawmakers again next year or in 2014, and then by voters in a statewide referendum, area residents and business owners are worried that the decision to spoil the historic Coney Island neighborhood with a massive gaming house – along with all of the undesirable elements it brings – will be made in Albany, without local input or approval.
A gambling casino in Coney Island will undoubtedly make money – lots of it – for the developers and insiders who will cut those deals. Those insiders may also claim that the project will also benefit the entire community, by creating jobs and business growth as the casino attracts tourists to the area. But as any gambler knows all too well, when it comes to casinos, the house always wins, and everyone else loses.
Promised jobs rarely materialize, and even when they do, they are mostly part time or temporary and minimum wage. As for “economic development,” anyone who has ever been brave enough to walk the streets Atlantic City can attest that this highly touted benefit generally applies only to the casinos. Within literally one block of even the most successful casino in Atlantic City, the only businesses that seem to thrive are pawn shops and criminal enterprises. Then of course, there is the traffic. If you thought the Belt Parkway was congested now during rush hour, imagine what it will look like when thousands of gamblers will be driving to and from a mega casino on Coney Island at all hours of the day and night.
When Albany proposes expanding legal gambling opportunities in New York State, it is playing with neighborhoods and the lives of their residents. That is why community leaders recently formed the “Stop The Casino” movement, together with residents, business owners and religious figures across Southern Brooklyn. Under the guidance of the Sephardic Community Federation (SCF), and with the advice and leadership of New York City Councilman David Greenfield, Stop The Casino is working around the clock to thwart plans to build a casino on Coney Island.
Ozone Park: A Telling Precedent
A survey of residential areas across America where casinos were brought in proves that such an addition exacts a staggering toll on the community.
For example, one year ago in Ozone Park, Queens, Genting’s Resort Worlds Casino opened next to Aqueduct Racetrack. The residents did not enjoy anything resembling the anticipated economic boom. One restaurant owner near the casino has actually seen his business decline since the casino opened, and he thinks he knows why: “Local people too, they’d rather spend money gambling than eating.” An article in In an August 10, 2012 article, The Wall Street Journal observed the string of empty storefronts near the casino, and commented, “Very little has sprung up in the way of new businesses.” To be fair, there is one industry that has enjoyed growth in Ozone Park: pawn shops. Four new pawn shops have opened for all of the community residents looking to trade away their possessions so they can go gamble at the casino. Each day, the Ozone Park casino draws 20,000 local residents – many of whom had never gambled before. Alarmingly, in just one short year, a significant portion of the neighborhood’s residents have been transformed into habitual gamblers.
Gambling By the Numbers
A study out of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has shown that pensioners and young adults, not to mention underage teens, are twice as likely to become addicted gamblers when they live within a 50-mile radius of a casino. Contrary to the claims of casino proponents, gambling problems are often hinged on availability and opportunity. Individuals who become pathological or problem gamblers are more likely to be on welfare, declare bankruptcy, and be arrested. Sadly, the most consistent trend among casino communities is the increase in bankruptcy rates, according to a study from Penn State University. If a casino comes to Coney Island, the nearby peaceful neighborhoods of Gravesend, Midwood, Bensonhurst and Borough Park would all suddenly be part of a casino community.
Perhaps most astonishing is the assertion by the American Insurance Institute that some 40 percent of all white-collar crime in the U.S. is committed by gambling addicts trying to re-coup their losses. David B. Mustard of the University of Georgia and Earl L. Grinols of Baylor University found that other crimes – theft, burglary, narcotics trade, and DWI (Driving While Intoxicated) – also rise sharply within the vicinity of gambling casinos[. Going back to Ozone Park, a community that is socioeconomically similar to Coney Island and its environs, robbery was up 12.3 percent in the last year, according to NYPD statistics. Similarly alarming statistics were reported in Ledyard, Connecticut, where the annual number of calls to the local police department soared from 4,000 to 16,700 within five years of the openingof the nearby Foxwoods Casino.
The Last Thing South Brooklyn Needs
Besides devastating toll of increased violent crime in the area, community leaders and local social service organizations worry about the inevitable increase in problem gambling within the community. “Our community spends millions of dollars each year dealing with the social service challenges that any community has, whether it be loss of work, gambling addiction or substance abuse,” explained Sam Sutton, President of the SCF and former President of Sephardic Bikur Holim . “Can you imagine how many more people will become involved with gambling, drugs and other illicit activities if all of these vices become easily accessible in the neighborhood? Even putting aside for a moment the thousands of lives that will be ruined, from a purely economic perspective the financial cost to the community would be devastating and far outweigh any potential economic benefit promised by casino developers.”
According to the latest survey of the Coney Island neighborhood about 5 percent of area residents have a gambling abuse problem. Jim Maney, spokesman for The New York Council on Problem Gambling, predicts that with increased availability and opportunity of gambling within a 10-mile radius, “we expect an increase in problem gambling of up to 90 percent. When people can walk or drive over to the casino easily… it will be harmful.”
“You only have to look at recent history to know that a casino will increase crime, vice and traffic,” says City Councilman David Greenfield. “We didn’t invest our whole lives to making this community one of the greatest in America, so that a few developers can ruin it. The last thing that South Brooklyn needs is a casino.” Greenfield maintains that Albany shouldn’t decide where to build a casino without approval from the City Council.
Under Greenfield’s guidance, Stop The Casino is raising funds to form a local community coalition of civic groups, social service nonprofits and clergy from Midwood, Borough Park, Bensonhurst and Gravesend with the shared goal of blocking the construction of the Coney Island Casino. Thanks to the support of generous community leaders, Stop The Casino hired Steve Zeltser, a former senior aide to Councilman Mike Nelson, as its executive director, and has launched an intensive public campaign to oppose the project.
Stop The Casino’s efforts have already been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, America’s most widely read newspaper. The article appeared on the front page of the Journal’s Greater New York Section on October 7th, and detailed how local site control is emerging as a complicating factor in the casino debate.
A Call to Action
Despite its achievements, the group’s leaders say that much more needs to be done, and soon. The amendment expanding legal gambling must be passed by lawmakers next year and a voter referendum must be held. Stop the Casino is working to galvanize local elected officials against the plan. To make this happen, the group is counting on grassroots support to send a loud, unified voice from the community saying that they will not tolerate a casino or elected officials who support one.
Several leading elected officials, including Councilmen Domenic M. Recchia Jr., Mike Nelson and David Greenfield, have already pledged to do everything in their power to stop the casino. Assemblypersons Steve Cymbrowitz, Helene Weinstein and Dov Hikind, and State Senators Diane Savino and Marty Golden, have also expressed opposition to the casino. Community activists are calling upon community members to show appreciation to these officials on Election Day.
Anyone who appreciates and enjoys the recent improvements in Coney Island over the last few years knows how far the neighborhood has come and where it needs to go. The dangling of a few minimum wage jobs at a casino comes with too much baggage and will not move the community forward. Support Stop The Casino to send a clear message that we are not willing to risk our families’ wellbeing for someone else’s get-rich scheme and we will not allow our neighborhood’s future to be gambled away in Albany.