Prominent Black New Yorkers like restaurateur Melba Wilson and ex-councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr. are putting their cards on the table for the city’s burgeoning casino bids. Three licenses are potentially up for grabs after the New York Gaming Facility Board voted in early January to issue a Request for Applications (RFA).
“Down here, as part of our rebuild, recovery, [and reinventing] our city, the casino would help,” said Mayor Eric Adams last month. “Does it matter where it is? I’m in favor of having one here. The jobs, bringing people into the city…I just think that we should have it somewhere here in the city.”
Interested in building a casino? Applicants just need $500 million in minimum capital investment and fees; 10% of the evaluation process will weigh a bid’s “diversity framework,” which looks at workplace demographics, ownership/leadership diversity, and present and future general diversity efforts. Another 10% of the evaluation considers workforce enhancement, which includes contracting with Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) businesses.
Wilson, founder and owner of Melba’s Restaurant in Central Harlem, announced her support for a Caesars Palace Times Square earlier this month. She told the Amsterdam News that she was introduced to the project by friends who formerly did business with Caesars Entertainment and thinks the proposed venue can revitalize the local Manhattan economy.
“Everyone’s going to Times Square [and it] was hit really hard,” said Wilson. “I can tell you how many restaurants because I’m the president of the New York City Hospitality Alliance. I can tell you that there are so many restaurants that are still suffering, so they could use this infusion. Let’s be honest, they’re a lot more expensive than my rents uptown. But they also provide jobs.”
Also onboard with the bid is Jay Z’s Roc Nation and One Vanderbilt real estate investor SL Green. They’re joining the Coalition for a Better Times Square, which Melba’s is also part of.
“Reward Credits” won at the casino can be spent on partnering businesses, if the bid is successful.
Cornegy recently resurfaced as a consultant for a coalition headed by Thor Equities aiming to build a casino in Coney Island. He formerly served as councilmember for the 36th District, which comprises Bed-Stuy and Northern Crown Heights, and left office at the start of last year. He told the Amsterdam News he came across the role when the bidders made a presentation to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.
Cornegy is a board member and said he approached the partners to get involved. His current role on the project is recruiting MWBE partnerships into the fold, which he calls “economic justice.” Cornegy chaired the Minority-and-Women-Owned Business Enterprise Task Force while on the City Council. He calls his current work an extension of his time in office, although he’s acutely aware of the chatter and criticism that comes with moving to the private sector.
“There’s somebody believing that they’re pouring money into accounts for people to work on projects like this, and that just wasn’t the case for me,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of this because it was an extension of the work I committed myself to [on] the council, whether through chairing Small Business or Housing and Buildings [committees].”
The project is proposed for Coney Island’s boardwalk, which relies on seasonal foot traffic during the warmer months when the beach is crowded and the rides are operating. Also on board with Thor Equities are Saratoga Casino Holdings, the Chickasaw Nation, and Legends. The venue also promises to include local businesses like Nathan’s Famous hotdog stand. Asked about the street vendors that populate the boardwalk, Cornegy said a casino would provide them with year-round business.
When it comes to casinos, the house always wins. But what about the residents? Recent Coney Island protests organized by tenant rights organization United Front Against Displacement (UFAD), largely composed of those living in the local NYCHA buildings, has opposed the local casino bid. A UFAD spokesperson said the pushback is rooted in fears of increased crime, gambling addictions, and developer activity in a neighborhood facing gentrification.
“The average income of our family of four in Coney Island is under $60,000,” said local activist Ann Michelle Valdez. “With such a low amount of capital, such a low income, that tells you this is not a place to put a casino.”
“Definitely the casinos are a huge no,” said a resident named Jeanny, whose last name is withheld due to immigration concerns. “Why? Because casinos are connected to more crime and I’m not gonna lie, we do have crime, right? We do everywhere, but the casino would definitely increase crime, and this is why we don’t want a casino, especially around children and families.”
Valdez said she would prefer a casino in Times Square. The UFAD spokesperson opposed any casino in the city. While Cornegy argued that the busy streets and bright lights of the casino would generally make Coney Island safer, he acknowledged that crime may mutate to reflect the new venue.
“When there’s illumination, it doesn’t go away, but the very crimes change [with] the severity of crimes decreasing, and petty crime sometimes increasing,” he said. “I don’t want to be dishonest. There’s a potential for an increase in crime. It’s just not the crimes that people would think [of] and [they’re] more socially manageable.”
He also said the applications are currently in a formative stage and there’s no guarantee a casino will even be built in Coney Island.
So far, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso is ambivalent about the bid, with the office currently gauging community interest. On March 6, he hosted a pair of public engagement sessions. For now, he’ll let the chips fall where they may.
“At this stage, I neither support nor oppose a Coney Island casino—what matters most to me are the perspectives of the people who live and work in Coney Island,” said Reynoso by email. “My priority right now is providing community members with all the information my office has on the proposal and the potential impacts of a casino, engaging residents to understand how they feel about the proposal, and ensuring that no decision is made by the State without the input of the Coney Island community.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.
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