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Opinion |
Don’t gamble with Coney Island: The neighborhood does not need a casino

Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Coney Island, Brooklyn.

Coney Island doesn’t need a casino. The damage predatory casinos bring to lower-income communities is well documented. As local Coney Island residents and organizations, we believe that the pandering, lobbying, and outright lies spread by the consortium proposing the casino are not in the best interests of our neighborhood.

The developers pushing this controversial project have only one goal: to enrich themselves at the expense of the public. Casinos are not a panacea for societal ills. In fact, they do the opposite: they cause more damage. Flashy renderings, the dubious promise of jobs, and free food giveaways cannot change the fact that a casino would further harm and exploit our community.

The cynical casino developers have tried to sell us a dream that “The Coney” will revitalize our neighborhood. But we know from academic research that casinos lower the retail sales of their surrounding businesses, and any jobs they create are offset by greater regional job losses. They also exacerbate addiction, domestic violence, and bankruptcy, causing local taxpayers to bear the burden of providing further social services.

The only reason the developers are now reaching out to the community is that their application for a gaming license requires public support. The casino developers are trying to buy that support with heavy lobbying, misinformation, and backroom deals.

The racial undertones and bad optics of the promotional efforts for “The Coney” have not been lost on us. Research has shown consistently that Black Americans have more than double the rate of gambling addiction than other racial groups. That fact has not prevented the team of developers behind this project from sinking to historic levels of sleaziness by taking out an ad in the Amsterdam News (a Black newspaper) for Kwanzaa and suggesting that the best way to celebrate this African-American holiday is by embracing a casino project in Coney Island.

They continue to further disgrace themselves by using local children as unwilling walking billboards, dressing mainly Black, Asian and Latino kids in casino-branded athletic wear, some of whom are just toddlers under the age of 5, a marketing tactic reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s ploy to turn minors into smokers.

A casino will not provide Coney Island with “community benefits.” Casinos are designed to isolate people, locking them inside while draining as much of their hard-earned money as possible that would otherwise support families and their host community.

There is no room in our already gridlocked amusement area for this type of disruptive project. The casino as planned would cause traffic congestion in the area’s two most crowded streets: W. 12th St. and Stillwell Ave. Emergency vehicles rushing down Surf Ave. are often delayed due to traffic jams. A casino makes it all worse.

If the state and city are hoping for tax revenue from this project, they will be extremely disappointed. “High-rollers” will not be visiting this isolated casino. It would become an attraction for local people of limited means who can least afford to gamble. Adjacent small businesses will suffer.

The state’s Request for Proposal (RFP) for the casino requires financial stability for the applicants. “The Coney’s” lead partner, Thor Equities, has recently defaulted on loans, losing major multi-million dollar properties through foreclosure. In 2020 Thor was sued for $338 million in missed loan payments.

For two decades, Thor’s CEO Joe Sitt has allowed his historic Coney Island properties to deteriorate into eyesores, some of which required demolition. Sitt is attempting to polish his image by hiring a rogues’ gallery of questionable lobbyists and political hacks willing to sell themselves to push a flawed casino project. We, the residents of Coney Island, refuse to bail out Sitt.

Last year, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso held a town hall meeting to gather public input. Seventy-five percent of the responses were firmly against the casino. For too long Coney Island has been influenced by outsiders. None of the developers working for “The Coney” lives in Coney Island.

A March 2023 headline in Politico declared that New York casino contracts are “an absolute petri dish for corruption.” The article revealed that millions of dollars are being spent on casino lobbying, and that “Good government groups worry the mix of big money, fierce competition and political signoff creates a breeding ground for corruption.” Coney Island doesn’t need the corruption that comes with casinos.

Denson is executive director of the Coney Island History Project. Frontus is interim executive director of the Coney Island Neighborhood Revitalization Corp. Shirayanagi is a Coney Island-based journalist and dad. Stewart is a life-long Coney Island resident and community activist.