Op-Ed: Will Casino Gambling Revitalize Coney Island?

Source: jasonsewell/Flickr

BETWEEN THE LINES: Gamblers — the obsessed and the occasional — must be drooling at the prospect of casino gambling coming to Coney Island, so they won’t have to schlep to Connecticut or Atlantic City to satisfy their cravings.

Some politicians and developers might also be salivating with visions of profits and revenues dancing in their heads to pump up state, city and personal assets, hoping a casino would be the spark needed to resurrect Coney Island to the distinction it had as a resort destination before it was transformed into a gaudy amusement area a century ago.

But additional gambling won’t be a certainty until voters have their say.

Legislation passed by state lawmakers included a Constitutional amendment allowing for up to seven casino-type gaming facilities statewide. A subsequent measure to stipulate where the new casinos may be located should be introduced and debated in the near future.

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Coney Island will likely be on that list, but it could be in turf war for the bid with the troubled Aqueduct race track, a few miles east of Brooklyn, which has also been mentioned as a potential site. Nevertheless, in order to amend the state Constitution, legislators must take up the measure and pass the amendment again next year before it earns a spot on the ballot for voters to approve in the 2013 general election.

That date also coincides with the exodus of Brooklyn’s head cheerleader, Borough President Marty Markowitz, who will be term-limited out office next year. But the beep’s still rooting for it to add to his legacy. In a press release, Markowitz said, “Casino gambling would bring jobs and revenue to potential locations in New York City, especially Coney Island, which is a natural.”

In craps, seven or 11 is a natural, but Coney Island may not be, despite Markowitz’s enthusiasm and the support of activists and elected officials.

In an article in the Brooklyn Paper earlier this year, the man considered the community’s unofficial mayor, Dick Zigun, said a gambling casino might “be the savior” for Coney Island as a major destination.

That same sort of optimism was echoed when the Brooklyn Cyclones came to Surf Avenue.

Politicians and local activists anticipated the arrival of a minor league baseball team as the beginning of a Coney Island renaissance.

Well, that never happened.

Cyclones fans arrive before the first pitch and may go on a thrill ride or to Nathan’s for pre-game eats, which are cheaper than inside the ballpark for the same food, but once the game ends, the crowd departs for communities miles from Coney Island. Secondary businesses and merchants get a temporary revenue boost, but the money spent for a few months is not enough to sustain the neighborhood year round.

Now, a similar optimism for gambling casinos has given some supporters a glimmer of hope that it will eventually transform south Brooklyn into Las Vegas East. Initially, a single casino could turn it into a gambling hot spot, but unless additional casinos open and Coney Island undergoes other drastic development, it is unlikely it would overtake Atlantic City, Connecticut, the Poconos or the possible rivalry of the Catskills, as a prime gambling resort.

If and when a Coney Island casino is approved, the area will also have to be rezoned because it is currently only regulated for hotels and an amusement area.

On top of that, essential planning will be crucial to reduce foreseeable problems.

Even though the Stillwell Avenue station is a hub for several subway lines, it doesn’t mean gamblers will use the system to get there. More than likely, they’ll travel by car, which would result in an increase in traffic volume and parking needs. The latter could easily be solved with parking lots that would also generate additional revenues.

More traffic also means more police assigned to the area. When the Cyclones play at home there is an obvious boost in police presence, but gambling doesn’t have a particular season, so until a pattern is established, the need for additional police will have to be determined.

Furthermore, law enforcement will have to step up to protect gamblers when they exit the casino. It may be optimistic to entice free-spending tourists once a casino opens, but the last thing anyone wants is for Coney Island to become a draw for connoisseur and novice criminals, who might congregate there for an opportunity to prey on gleeful winners as well as glum losers.

With the addition of a casino, Sea Gate residents will surely add more security to guarantee the safety of their gated community at the west end of Coney Island.

It’s often said that gambling is a victimless crime, but the compulsion afflicts in other ways. The gambler’s victims are families and friends. It may only be a few dollars here and there or a C-note or two once in a while, but the constant craving adds up and ultimately takes its toll.

It’s extremely rare for gamblers to ever win enough to cover years of losses. That’s why they call it gambling.

The only ones who will likely benefit from one or more casinos sprouting in Coney Island will be the realtors, the politicians and a select group, who’ll likely never place a bet or toss dice.

Let’s not get prematurely excited about a casino in Brooklyn. Indeed, if they build it, gamblers will surely come — but it won’t revitalize the neighborhood anytime soon.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.