A Casino in Our Own Backyard?

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ELLEN GELLER KAMARAS  

“The operator of the casino will become very, very, rich and successful. Everybody else will suffer. Especially the area around the casino. Drugs, prostitution, crime, mental health issues, suicides, depression, family breakups, all kinds of robberies. It’s the last thing that Coney Island needs.” – City Council Member Ari Kagan 

Coney Island is the site for the third public proposal for a gambling casino in New York City, as developers and gaming partners bid for licenses. The possibility of a casino complex is raising concerns among community residents.  Is it too close for comfort? 

Thor Equities, a real estate development, leasing, and management firm, is hoping to be awarded one of three downstate casino licenses.  Thor has put together a consortium of three partners, Saratoga Casino Holdings, which operates a racino (combination racetrack and casino) in New York’s Saratoga County, the Chickasaw Nation, a Native American Tribe that owns more than 20 gambling establishments, and Legends Global Planning, the proposed entertainment partner.  Their goal is to turn Coney Island into a year-round destination instead of a summertime hangout primarily limited to the boardwalk.  If Thor wins the license, it is expected that $3 billion will be spent to redevelop five acres between Stillwell Avenue, West 12th Street, Surf Avenue, and Wonder Wheel Way. The entertainment complex will include a casino, a roller coaster, an indoor water park, hotels, and museums.   

Approval Process for New Casino Licenses 

New York State officials released the criteria they will use to determine how up to three new casino licenses will be awarded. The operators awarded licenses to run any of the NYC-area properties will be required to pay the state at least $500 million in fees for the permits, according to the rules of the New York Gaming Facility Board.  

The request for applications document was approved by the board, and rules indicate applicants will be scored based on their potential economic activity, impact on the surrounding communities, workforce and responsible gaming plans, and their commitment to diversity. To see updates on what is happening with the Coney Island casino project’s request for application please see https://nycasinos.ny.gov/2023-request-applications.   

The approval process for these proposals opened in January, and is expected to be lengthy.  Real estate developers and casino operators are preparing their official proposals. 

When Will the Casino Locations Be Announced? 

NYS gambling regulators have said no determinations will be made “until sometime later in 2023 at the earliest.” 

The New York Gaming Commission created and made appointments to a Gaming Facility Location Board, which is tasked to oversee the application process and select three casino sites in the NY City area for licensure. 

The Board’s powers consist of issuing a Request for Approval, creating criteria for assessing applicants, overseeing investigative hearings regarding the conduct of gaming/gaming operations, setting the license fee price, and promulgating all rules and regulations. 

New York’s newly formed Gaming Facility Location Board will start reviewing applications this yearAfter reviewing the applications, the Board will make recommendations to the Gaming Commission, which has the authority to decide which licenses to award.  The Commission has made it clear that it will not overrule the Board’s recommendations unless it finds a problem with the fitness and character of the applicant. 

The conditions required for the Gaming Commission to approve a casino application (as of an April 2022 version of a 2013 law) include gaining public support from community advisory committees as well as compliance with state and local zoning laws.  

This is a competitive process for three brand new licenses.  The law requires that any applicants to this Request for Approval must first be approved by a community advisory committee and they must complete the municipal zoning process before any applications are evaluated. Therefore, only those projects that have been embraced by the community will ultimately be presented to the Board for consideration.  

Does Local Support Matter? 

YES!   

The application process has been structured in such a way that allows strong community opposition to defeat a casino bid before state regulators can even review the application. 

Therefore, for each application, a local Community Advisory Committee will be formed to hold public hearings and issue formal findings of how much community support the proposed casino has. 

For New York City sites, the local committees would have six members: the governor, the mayor, the local state senator, the local state assembly member, the borough president, and the local city council member, each choosing one member. 

At least two-thirds of the committee members must approve the project before state regulators begin evaluating the application. 

Please contact Jessica Scarcella-Spanton, NY State Senator, Assemblyman Michael Novakhov (District 45), and Ari Kagan, the local city council member (District 47), to voice your feedback, questions, and concerns regarding the Coney Island Casino project. 

 

Community Reactions to the Coney Island Casino Project 

The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce stands in favor of the Coney Island casino.  Its president, Randy Peers, believes that the project will stimulate the economy by turning Coney Island into a year-round destination and will create all-year full-time employment for local residents.  

Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso also voiced his early support for the Coney Island resort in November 2022.  He believes the project would “revitalize the seaside town.”  He wants to remain open-minded, see what the proposals look like, putting the Coney Island residents first, given that Coney Island has one of the highest unemployment rates in Brooklyn.   

While real estate developers and some government officials tout the financial benefits casinos can bring (area revitalization, significant revenue, well-paying union jobs), there are major negative factors to consider.  Take the Atlantic City referendum in 1976.  The casinos did breathe life into Atlantic City’s tourism industry and created 43,000 jobs at its peak in 2006, but jobs have since decreased to 33,000.  Atlantic City grapples with competition from nearby states, and casinos did not repair the long-rooted social problems of the city, such as poverty, unemployment, and crime. 

Ida Sanoff, an environmental activist and longtime Coney Island resident, along with a number of Coney Islanders, is against a casino in their already crowded backyard.  They refer to a lack of transportation services to support the new attraction (most seniors cannot take a subway and climb the stairs) and minimal benefits to the local community.  A casino will further drain resources, such as police manpower, maintenance, and program funding, from the rest of Coney Island.  

Opening a gaming house will also aggravate traffic in the neighborhood, as most people will drive their cars to the casino, increasing congestion to the amusement park district in the summer. 

Although New York law states that one must be at least 21 to gamble at tribal/commercial casinos or online sportsbooks, citizens are concerned that even youngsters will be negatively affected by the casino scene. 

Area City Council Member Ari Kagan (D), a vocal critic of the Coney Island project, reiterated his past critiques.  He points to the failure of Atlantic City developers and the negative effect of casinos on heavily residential areas. 

“The operator of the casino will become very, very, rich and successful. Everybody else will suffer. Especially the area around the casino. Drugs, prostitution, crime, mental health issues, suicides, depression, family breakups, all kinds of robberies. It’s the last thing that Coney Island needs.” 

Instead, Kagan declared that Coney Island needs a new ferry, another supermarket and bank, and better public transit.  

He also believes that a casino will not hire locally, despite the developers’ assertions, and that it will not assist local businesses. 

“Everything will be inside the casino. The whole point of the casino is nobody leaving the casino, everybody’s in, nobody’s out,” Kagan stated.  

Outgoing State Senator Diane Savino (D Brooklyn, Staten Island) said that she is agnostic on the prospect of a Coney Island casino and expects a lot of community pushback.