It is July of 1947. The scorching city heat melts into the paved streets of New York City, as swarms of refugees head to the cool Atlantic coastline, to Coney Island. It is a place to escape into the comfortable warm breeze of the boardwalk, and to take part in the dynamic energy that is infused into the air. If it turns and twists or rocks and shakes, it is here at Coney Island. From rollercoasters to pristine beaches, the Wonder Wheel to glittering spectacles of every kind, Coney Island is a beloved destination where merriment is king, and where the dreams of childhood reign: America’s playground at its finest.
Coney Island, a densely populated peninsula in Southern Brooklyn, is a historic entertainment venue, one that is woven into the very fabric of New York. The area attracted millions of captivated visitors in the early 20th Century, yet as time plodded forward the following decades produced a hollow shell of what once was. Its signature amusement parks gradually closed one by one, as overly confident and bold investors planned a string of failed revival schemes through redevelopment.
The latest such attempt is a referendum passed on November 5th, 2013, which upheld a New York State constitutional amendment, marshaled by Governor Andrew Cuomo, to allow the construction of seven full service gambling casinos throughout New York State. There is a two-phase plan, with the first being approved construction of four gambling casinos in three upstate regions: the Catskills, Capital Region, and the Southern Tier, along the Pennsylvania border. The next phase will be implemented after a seven-year moratorium period, after which state legislators will determine the locations of three additional inner-borough casinos, with a popular option being the historic, albeit struggling, Coney Island.
The proposal is aimed at creating revenue and job growth for economically faltering New York neighborhoods. While 60% of voters were in support of the ballot referendum, coined ‘Preposition 1’, the topic remains a source of intense controversy.
According to a New York Times/ Sienna College poll, nearly 72% of polled New Yorkers expressed that it is likely casinos will bring significant new revenue for New York State, which is currently operating at a $2 billion budget deficit. However the sentiment has been, that some residents are leaning towards a “not in my backyard” approach. While they are supportive of gleaming new casinos as a reliable source of new revenue for the state, they are hesitant to express backing for a proposal that would land casinos close by, in their own neighborhoods.
In his widely reaching campaign to win public support for the proposal, Governor Cuomo has pointed to rapid job growth, increased aid to education, boosted tourism and lower property taxes as an expected result of the new casinos.
“The votes are in,” said NY Jobs Now, a PAC which raised nearly $4 million from supporters of the proposal, “And New Yorkers – business and labor, Democrats and Republicans – have come together to bring billions of dollars back to our state, create thousands of good-paying jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for schools and local governments.”
In return, opposing advocating groups, such as the Stop the Coney Island Casino Organization, have fueled their arguments around the potential consequences of a gambling casino in a residential area, such as Coney Island. They fear increased crime rates, the spread of compulsive gambling, depression of the local community’s economy, and an overall deterioration in quality of life in the area.
“If you want to see crime go up; if you want to see traffic go up; if you want to see small businesses go out of business- then support the casino,” said Councilman David Greenfield, a vociferous advocate against the proposal, “But if you care about the community, we must join together and stop the Coney Island casino.”
Of course, the approval of Proposition 1 is only part of a decades-long effort by the gambling industry to penetrate the New York market. For a specific area such as Coney Island, it is also not the first time it has seen an attempt in entering the gambling playing field.
In the late 1970’s, a plan by private investors to revitalize Coney Island by building gambling casinos, as in Atlantic City, backfired. A land boom was created at the prospect of a new casino, and state legislature failed to legalize gambling, leading to vacant lots and abundant disappointment.
Those empty lots still exist today in Coney Island. However, Governor Cuomo envisions a rebirth of the real estate with the potential casino building after the moratorium period of seven years. Every year, more than $3 billion is spent by New Yorkers in neighboring states’ casinos, a number that the Governor hopes can become reinstituted into New York State revenue, while also attracting tourists from competing states.
“Just in my apartment building alone, twice a month they have buses come and take people to Atlantic City,” Queens resident Albert Perrotto said in a New York Times interview. “If they take them to upstate New York or down here instead, it would be a shorter ride, and the revenue would come here instead. It makes a lot of sense to me.”
Supporters of Governor Cuomo’s proposal have highlighted returns of existing electric slot machine casinos in New York State, as proof of positive results that can be expected to come. As of August 1st, the Resorts World Casino in Queens has sent over $329 million in taxes to the state, including about $210 million allocated for education. The ‘racino’ has also distributed 1,750 permanent jobs, with a large majority from the neighboring Queens community. According to the Empire State development Corporation, the introduction of the wave of new casinos is expected to provide nearly 10,000 new construction and permanent jobs, $1.6 billion in construction spending, and nearly $420 million in tax revenue. The central purpose of course, is aimed at providing immediate help to the struggling communities in which these casinos are to be built.
“Granted, there areas that are in need of economic revival,” said Brooklyn native Isadore Betesh, “In places such as Coney Island, I can speak as a consumer to say that new, modern, and upscale entertainment venues will only help in attracting visitors to the area, no doubt helping local businesses in the process. With so much money being spent by New Yorkers in surrounding states, it only makes sense that we should try to draw that revenue back in. As of now, they were getting all the revenue, and we were just getting the addictions and complications that come with it.”
While there is little argument that the new casinos will generate revenue, there is a clear discrepancy between the parties when it comes to how effective casinos will be in helping their surrounding communities.
“When people go to a new casino with six different gorgeous restaurants in it,” said Sam Sutton, long time Gravesend resident and advocate of the Stop the Coney Island Casino Organization, “There is no reason for them to ever go outside the casino, to local businesses. If you look at the casino in Queens, and if you look one block out from the casinos in Atlantic City, the neighborhoods are bleak. There’s no doubt about it.”
A highly profitable destination such as Atlantic City once had a median family income of $34,000 in 1980. In 2010, it was just $35,000, showing minimal improvement. With a median income of just $31,000, there is a valid concern that the resident community of Coney Island would simply not be able to support a new casino economically. In addition, there is always the uneasiness to the prospect of potential consequences that casinos may bring to surrounding residential areas.
“We are dreading the possibility of a casino being built nearby,” said Sutton, “Casinos bring a certain kind of element to the area, and they bring certain types of people. They bring crime and gambling addictions and prostitution…why do we need that? And to think that a community kid can literally get on a bicycle and ride ten minutes away every night to get involved with all of that—it would be a complete fiasco!”
According to an analysis of crime data conducted by Baylor University economist Earl Grinols, within five years of a casino opening, robberies in the area increase 136%, auto theft by 91%, burglary by 50%, larceny by 38% and rape by 21%. In addition, a study published in 2005 by the University of Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions tells us that the chance of becoming a gambling addict doubles if you live within 10 miles of a casino.
In America today, there are over 15 million adults at risk for problem gambling. According to the President of the NY Council on Problem Gambling, Stephen Block, the problem lies in increased awareness of the nationwide issue.
“Although the council does not take a position on casinos being built,” said Mr. Block, “We do expect that with any expansion of gambling, awareness should be spread, and services should be provided for a person who has a problem, or may come to have a problem with gambling.”
Governor Cuomo has promptly answered that concern, by signing into law a bill requiring gaming venues to post information about compulsive gambling support services near every entrance and exit. Additionally, it required that signage providing a 24-hour hotline number and other support services for problem gamblers be clearly posted in all gaming facilities.
“Support and prevention is key,” said Block, “Because problem gambling is a spiral that affects many areas of your life, whether that be financial, physical and mental health, legal problems and relationships with loved ones—the list goes on and on.”
The potential for crime and gambling issues, while valid, has still not fully surpassed the substantial potential for increased revenue for the struggling Coney Island in the public eye. From house to house, and store to store, the approval of the possible landing of a casino in Coney Island remains decidedly mixed.
“Absolutely, let’s keep casinos out of Coney Island,” said a local shop owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “And while were at it, let’s close down all the bars too, because some people have a drinking problem, and let’s turn it into a pedestrian mall like Times Square, so no one will have a car accident. Nathans? That can close down too…way too much fried food. Close the ballpark, too, so nobody gets hit by a foul ball. And the Cyclone? A public health menace for sure– it can cause dizziness! Or, we could just let adults make their own responsible decisions.”