Coliseum Casino: Let It Ride

It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

Foxwoods Casino. Oh no, this just wouldn't do. Too pretty for Long Island. Next!

There is a renewed hullaballoo surrounding the proposed Shinnecock casino at the current site of the Nassau Coliseum. A deserved hullaballoo, I might add. The very thought of a casino in the middle of our bustling, albeit struggling, suburban landscape inspires clamorous debate among the many stakeholders that exist in relatively tight quarters. Even lame duck Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is quacking about building a casino at his beloved Yaphank facility claiming that it’s better suited further away from Nassau County residents.

Unfortunately, it will be a cold day in hell before Long Islanders in either county have a say in the matter. People you have never heard of in positions you didn’t know existed will never allow a casino to be built this close to New York City because it would potentially devastate the interests of the people they represent from upstate New York, Connecticut, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. I offer this, not to quell your enthusiasm but to issue a gauntlet of solidarity and self-determination: either we all get behind this, or we drop it from the start.

So let’s have a debate among ourselves. Long Islander to Long Islander. But allow me to establish some ground rules. First, take the emotion out of the ensuing discourse by recognizing that while there is no magic elixir to cure our financial illness on Long Island, Nassau County in particular, we must not allow ourselves to be constrained by classic NIMBYism. There’s nothing wrong with thinking big. Conversely, big thinking doesn’t always ensure positive outcomes. But the only journey that guarantees failure is one that never begins. Taxpayers can no longer afford pusillanimous behavior from elected officials who acquiesce to a vocal minority. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Huntington! Oops. Getting emotional. My bad.)

Further, in order to have a proper discussion we must move past the question of legitimacy; that is, whether the tribe has the right to construct a casino on this parcel. For the purposes of examining the potential impact of this type of development, let us assume that it is within their right to strike an agreement with the government to build on this property. Lastly, the only other stipulation I entreat you to heed is to refrain from casting racially motivated aspersions toward members of the Shinnecock Nation. It detracts from the merit of the debate.

Here are my assertions. Let the debate begin.

If you build it they will come. A casino nestled within such a populous community has the potential of being the largest-grossing casino in the nation. Factor in the public transportation access to this area from New York City residents and this is an irrefutable fact. The impact upon the local economy would be seismic. According to a 2008 study published by the Taylor Policy Group of Sarasota, Fla., the estimated impact of the gaming and related industries of the Seneca Nation in western New York is $820 million annually. The study places this figure in context by stating that “the impact of the Nation exceeds that of the [Buffalo] Bills and the [Buffalo] Sabres combined and approaches that of the SUNY Buffalo campus.” This project would create thousands of sustained jobs and provide badly needed work for the local trades, generate healthy revenues to the Long Island Power Authority and local municipalities, and have an incredible halo effect on the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.

A casino would not create a seedy culture. This particular assertion is hotly debated. Casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods and prostitutes. Never mind that you can already gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman in a leisure suit with a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out. I’m not condoning the use of escort services, but merely pointing out our collective hypocrisy with respect to our view on what’s acceptable and where. Prohibiting this illegal indulgence is far more manageable than scouring Craigslist and cracking down on neighborhood massage parlors.

This actually is the best location for a casino. The modern casino is part of an extensive array of business and cultural services. They tend to be aesthetically pleasing (think Wynn, not Trump) and boost the viability of a convention center, sports complex and entertainment arena. If a gaming operation was paired with a family destination nearby (think Great Wolf Lodge), imagine the combined economic possibilities of family and business travel. I might also remind everyone that Roosevelt Raceway was a gigantic gambling facility. It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

This development would ease traffic. Yup. I said it. The amount of money generated by a full-fledged hotel, casino and convention operation with a family amusement center would fund the long-desired transportation hub between the railroad, Museum Row, and the local shopping destinations. It’s all right there; you just can’t get there from here at the moment.

The Islanders are worth fighting for. This team stood by Long Island for decades. Hell, they even looked pretty good at the end of this season and their prospects for next year are even better. This is our only professional sports franchise. Like I said, the Islanders are worth fighting for.

Hofstra would benefit greatly from this development. Hofstra University is emerging as the largest and most vocal detractor of this project. This is completely understandable given the fears gambling inspires. The two most salient points the University is making are that college kids shouldn’t have this type of access to a gambling establishment and that its proximity will have a deleterious effect on the school’s image from the perspective of parents considering sending their children to the school.

First of all, kids are gambling online and addicted to video games. This will be the addiction cross to bear for this generation. As for the perceptual aesthetic and moral issues of a peripheral gaming establishment, it’s hard to imagine the current “approach” to the University being any worse. I love the Hofstra campus but the immediate surroundings, including the dilapidated coliseum, leave much to be desired. Hofstra is a serious stakeholder that would and should be able to ask for the sun, moon and stars when the infrastructure is fully developed here. President Stuart Rabinowitz has done more to enhance the reputation of this institution, from which I proudly hold a degree, by hosting the Presidential debate, building a medical school and improving the overall academic standing of the school. Hofstra is already bigger than its environs and will continue to be so for decades to come, casino or no casino. Besides, you tell me which option sounds worse to a parent in Nebraska with a child considering a top-notch school in New York:

(A) Columbia University in Harlem,
(B) Fordham University in the Bronx, or
(C) Hofstra University on Long Island.

By now, I’m confident several of you vehemently disagree with these assertions. I welcome your commentsbelow and look forward to continuing the conversation.

With that, let the games (of chance) begin.

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Shinnecock Casino At Nassau Coliseum

Shinnecock will have many chefs in their kitchen (I’m resisting the “too many chiefs” reference) as they try to establish a casino in any state that begins with “New” and ends in “York.” Look no further than the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the six Off Track Betting regions in New York State, none of which turn a profit.

Lighthouse Project Canal
View of the Lighthouse Project and Tall Ships Manned By Little People

The Shinnecock Nation is set to finally receive federal recognition. This status gives the tribe the ability to apply for a Class III gaming license, which would allow it to operate a full-fledged, high-stakes gaming facility. The biggest question is, where? Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano would like the ball to stop on his number on the roulette wheel and he has tens of millions of reasons for it.

As this column often serves as a bully pulpit for Indian rights, I will spare you all the reasons why “federal recognition” is such a sham and why the Shinnecock Nation should be able to build a 100-story casino in Southampton. Instead, allow me to explain why this is such a good idea for Long Island.

Indian casinos do not guarantee prosperity for the tribe in possession of the license or the community surrounding it. But an Indian casino based in the heart of one of the most populated regions in the nation does. A casino at the Nassau Coliseum site would be the single largest gambling facility in the nation. It is simple math. The Nassau “Hub” would finally be realized with an infusion of public and private money, fast-tracking infrastructure spending that would make Robert Moses blush.

This casino would serve as the nucleus for a burgeoning entertainment epicenter. All of the commercial, retail and residential “new suburbia” dreams would become reality as developers flock to construct a supporting economy within the glow of the Lighthouse Project. This presupposes that a deal could be reached with the Rechler/Wang power duo.

This project would have a negligible impact on traffic in the area to quiet the NIMBYists by funding a total overhaul of the public transportation network. A light rail system connecting the Casino to the Hempstead train station and Roosevelt Field? You got it. Widened roads with greater access to the Hub? Not a problem. Twenty-story complexes to house industry and residents surrounding the complex? Why not 30?

Of course, there are those who will fight tooth and nail against a casino on Long Island because of the filthy underbelly it represents. For many, casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods, prostitutes and bootlegging. Never mind that you can gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman with a leisure suit and a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out.

But let’s assume for a moment that Kate Murray of Hempstead, Ed Mangano of Nassau, Randy King of Shinnecock, and Charles Wang of everything else, are all in agreement that this plan should move past both the drawing board and the planning board. Then assume that the residents, community groups and environmentalists join hands and sing the praises of this proposal. Then assume the Islanders win the Stanley Cup. (OK, that was one step too far.) Even with all of these obstacles cleared, the single biggest one might surprise you: the gaming industry itself.

Technically, there is nothing that restricts sovereign Indian nations from building casinos on Indian land. Nothing, that is, but for the bigger sovereign known as the United States. Gambling operations existed on tribal land well before the U.S. government established the rules of engagement under Ronald Reagan with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. Even still there is theoretically nothing that would prevent a tribe from ignoring this Act (it’s a unilateral law, not a treaty) and opening a casino. It’s the gaming industry that operates within U.S. territory that provides the insurance policy against any casinos not blessed by the United States. The U.S. government would run any gaming manufacturer out of the country if it dared sell or license technology and support to a non-licensed operator that didn’t have U.S. approval. This is enough to dissuade any gaming company from doing business with tribes without an agreement in place with federal, state and local governments, which leads to the next issue…

Shinnecock will have many chefs in their kitchen (I’m resisting the “too many chiefs” reference) as they try to establish a casino in any state that begins with “New” and ends in “York.” Look no further than the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the six Off Track Betting regions in New York State, none of which turn a profit. NYRA only recently emerged bankruptcy but is still bleeding cash, New York City OTB just went into bankruptcy, and horse racing in New York is in danger of extinction as a result. This is due more to the financial mandates of the state than it is to the decline in betting revenues. New York State is in such dire financial straits that it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Albany acquiesces to the desire of the Nassau Republicans to revitalize their hopes for the Hub. Add to the mix that Sheldon Silver, hands down the most powerful politician in the state, detests gambling and you have a recipe for failure.

But the most powerful foe in this process won’t be the most immediate one. The “powers that be” with interests in Las Vegas simply cannot afford to allow a casino so close to New York City. Atlantic City might as well disappear completely. One can point to the success of the casinos operated by the Oneida and Seneca Nations located in upstate New York, not to mention Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, to understand that the closer to New York City you place a casino, the more successful it is. Then track the number of flights from the tri-state area with Vegas as the final destination and consider how important this market really is. A large-scale, sophisticated Class III gaming facility 40 minutes from New York City by train and in the center of Long Island is death for all the others. The politicians in New York City will be damned if they lose one reverse-commuting thrill seeker, the politicians upstate can’t afford the potential revenue and job losses and New Jersey, well, to hell with Jersey. 

By going public with his discussions with Shinnecock, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is about to come face to face with the biggest challenge of his young administration. It’s no secret that the prior administration handed him a giant sack of financial meatballs and this could be the single most significant game-changing move. How he maneuvers through this process will either establish a new gilded age for Nassau County or set the stage for a calamitous one-term footnote in Long Island government history. Either way it will test the mettle of the dream team from Bethpage and set the tone for the next three and a half years in Nassau County.