Controversy Heats Up Over Potential Coney Island Casino

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ELLEN GELLER KAMARAS  

The April issue of Community featured an article about a potential plan for a Coney Island casino. Coney Island has been chosen as one of the three possible sites for downstate gambling casinos in the NYC area. Now developers and gaming companies are bidding for licenses. 

Residents are divided over the possibility of a casino complex, “The Coney,” in our own backyard. 

Here are some key points of the proposal and the timeline related to the application and review process. 

Background 

The Coney details depend on a request for proposals (RFA) issued by the NYS Gaming Commission in January 2023.  Please see https://nycasinos.ny.gov/2023-request-applications for important updates.   

The RFA approval process opened in January and is anticipated to be lengthy.  Real estate developers and casino operators are preparing their official proposals. 

Joe Sitt, a Coney Island native and real estate developer for Thor Equities, is hoping to be awarded one of three downstate casino licenses 

Thor’s consortium consists 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.  Sitt’s 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 would include a casino, a roller coaster, an indoor water park, hotels, and museums.   

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

 

Gaming Facility Location Board 

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 NYC area for licensure. 

The Board’s powers include issuing an RFA, 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. 

The Board will start reviewing applications this year.    

After its review, 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 an issue  with the fitness and character of the applicant. 

The conditions required for the Gaming Commission to approve a casino application include gaining public support from community advisory committees and compliance with state and local zoning laws.  

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

Does Local Opposition Matter? 

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

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

For NYC sites, the local committees consists of six members, chosen by the governor, the mayor, the local state senator, the local state assembly member, the borough president, and the local city council member (with each official choosing one member). 

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

First Renderings Unveiled 

On March 3, Thor’s consortium released plans for The Coney.   

The Business Improvement District has promoted The Coney as a solution for revitalizing the boardwalk and the surrounding neighborhood with continual jobs and entertainment, drawing visitors to Coney Island year round, and easing its winter financial slump. 

The renderings portray a showy tower off the boardwalk with a casino hotel of approximately 25 stories.  One reporter described the hotel as a “colorfully ribbed, swoopy exterior boxed in by Luna Park, the Cyclone, and the Wonderful Wheel.”   

The Coney’s PR boasts the project will provide economic opportunity, revitalization, and resiliency. 

Mr. Sitt acknowledged that obtaining a Coney Island casino license might be something of a long shot, given the crowded field. 

Community Opinion Divided 

Nearby residents are split on whether The Coney is a jackpot or a bust, causing a distinct rift among Coney Island locals.   

 

Community leaders and activists weighed in with pros and cons regarding The Coney on Monday night, March 6th.  Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso arranged for two meetings for locals to present their views. 

 

The United Front Against Displacement, a national tenant organization, hosted a rally outside the community meeting at the local YMCA, protesting the project and holding signs and clashing on Coney Island’s streets before a planned meeting with Reynoso. 

 

Is Reynoso still on board with the proposal?  He expressed his early support in November 2022 but committed to staying open-minded and keeping the Coney Island residents’ interests first.   

 

“I don’t know how I feel yet,” said Reynoso. “I want to be honest. Ultimately, what I want is for Coney Island to be taken care of. That’s what I care about more than anything. And whatever decision the state wants to make here, I want the community involved. That’s what I’m doing here.” 

 

Protests resumed against The Coney on Wednesday, April 19.  Almost 200 residents came to Gargiulo’s Restaurant to weigh in on the proposed casino. They collided over the impact the project could have on their community.   

 

The Coney’s proponents argue that the project will certainly be a boon to the community, providing increased employment, visitors, and money.  Those who oppose the plan see minimal economic benefits, point to the disappointing outcomes in Atlantic City, and are wary of increased crime and traffic and limited security resources.   

 

At the April 19th open forum, residents addressed members of the casino development team directly.  

 

 

 

Community Board 13 

 

The chairperson of Community Board 13, which represents Coney Island, is Lucy Diaz.  Diaz worked on planning the event and explained that residents were allowed to share their views, pro or con, ahead of the event. 

 

Diaz told the Brooklyn Paper, “The goal and the vision was to hear the residents speak on why they did or did not want the casino.”  

 

Most of the feedback at the April 19th meeting was negative. 

 

The local papers reported that each downstate NY casino proposal has been met with an abundance of backlash from community members.  The Coney proposal, however, has received 3,363 signatures as of May 2, 2023, from community members who support the project. 

But how these signatures were obtained?  Robert Cornegy, a former NYC council member is a consultant for The Coney and has knocked on more than 16,300 doors to have face-to-face conversations with residents about the casino proposal and to get physical signatures.  

The Coney consortium is taking a more grassroots approach to community outreach rather than just hosting meetings.  Cornegy knocked on the doors of three groups of people – homeowners, residents living in NYC Housing Authority buildings and apartments, and business owners.  

Community Opposition 

 

On April 26th, Community Board 13 members voted online on an official resolution that opposes the Coney Island casino.  The resolution passed by an overwhelming vote of 23-8, rejecting the casino proposal.    

The Community Board’s resolution is non-binding, has no legal weight, and cannot singlehandedly stop the casino project.  However, the Board includes many local politicians who will have a legal say on the project in the future and the Board’s vote does not look promising for the project.  

Councilman Ari Kagan, one of these local politicians, backed the Board’s majority vote.  “I completely agree with the overwhelming opposition from the community in Coney Island. The overwhelming majority of people I talk to are against the casino.” 

Kagan cited that The Coney will bring more traffic, crime, and mental health problems. 

Diaz said, “We don’t want what Atlantic City has. We’re already drowning in traffic half the year. Now you want to bring more traffic in?! We don’t want it.” 

The casino consortium continues to push The Coney’s positive selling points.  It believes the Board’s resolution is premature and points to the 3,363 signatures supporting The Coney project. 

  

The consortium’s position is, “Any judgements about this project – which is going to have enormous benefits – before the full details and community benefits agreement are finalized is premature and shortsighted.” 

 

Include Sidebar: What Can You Do? 

 

Contact the officials below to find out who is representing you at the Community Advisory Committee meetings.   

Remember that the Community Advisory Committee is responsible for holding public hearings and issuing a formal finding of how much community support The Coney has. 

Approval of the project by at least 2/3 of the committee members is required before state regulators begin evaluating the application. 

Please send your feedback, questions, and concerns regarding The Coney to: 

  1. NY State Senator Jessica Scarcella-Spanton – 718-727-9406.  
  1. Assemblyman Michael Novakhov (District 45)718-743-4078. 
  1. Local City Council Member Ari Kagan (District 47) – 718-307-7151. 
  1. Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso – 718-802–3700. 
  1. Mayor Eric Adams – Phone: 311. 
  1. Governor Kathy Hochul – 518-474-8390.