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Casi-NO! Coney Islanders oppose potential casino at community forum

The local conversation regarding the potential Coney Island casino continued to heat up at an April 19 open forum as residents addressed members of the casino development team directly. 

Lucy Diaz, chairperson of Community Board 13, who helped plan and facilitate the event, said the board made it clear that residents were allowed to share comments that were either pro or anti-casino ahead of the event.

“The goal and the vision was more to hear the residents speak. It was for them to give their input on why they did or did not want the casino,” Diaz told Brooklyn Paper. 

coney island casino forumResidents brought up concerns of traffic, parking, safety and more at the April 19 forum. Photo by Jada Camille

Speakers had two minutes to address former council member Robert E. Cornegy and Michael DeLoach, partners with the pro-casino team, with their opinions on the gambling hub. Cornegy and DeLoach are working alongside developer Thor Equities, Legends, Saratoga Casino Holdings and the Chickasaw Nation as they polish their bid for a new downstate casino license in Coney.

Out of the roughly 25 speakers, none stated they were in favor of the casino. Instead, they spent their allotted time sharing reasons why the development would disadvantage the community or exacerbate current issues of traffic congestion, inadequate parking, safety and more. 

Jeanny Hernandez, a Coney resident for over 20 years, fears the entertainment site would be a huge step towards gentrification by increasing rent and raising property taxes that could push a number of long-time residents out of the southern peninsula. 

“I want it to stay the same. This casino would lead to gentrification and that is my main concern. I want my neighbors to stay here, I want to stay here,” Hernandez told Brooklyn Paper. “I want improvements, but a casino is not the answer.”

She said it “breaks her heart” to think some of her neighbors would have to leave the area and urged developers to leave the community the way it is.

“I think the negative stuff outweighs everything that they’re saying,” she said.

According to Ann Valdez, a third generation Coney Islander, a casino will not benefit the community as developers claim.

“These developers that are coming in here, majority of them are only looking to put money in their pockets. They’re not looking to uplift us. Instead, they’re looking to create havoc here because with a casino people here that are living low to middle income are going to spend up their money and they’re going to wind up evicted,” Valdez told Brooklyn Paper. 

Instead of gambling centers and hotels, Valdez thinks developers should invest in the community by introducing more support centers for youth and seniors.

“We don’t need to be pulled down any lower. We need to have programs here and people that are going to build here, that are going to uplift our community and not pull us down any more,” she said.

DeLoach, president of public affairs and issue advocacy with Red Horse Strategies, reiterated that all plans are still in preliminary stages. The project would cover five acres of the People’s Playground and would include an entertainment area, ten to 20 restaurants, a hotel with hundreds of rooms and an open space connecting potential visitors to the rest of the area. 

coney island casino renderingsThe proposed casino will sprawl across five acres and will include a number of restaurants, stores, and a hotel. Rendering courtesy of “The Coney”

DeLoach assured residents that the partners are prioritizing finding solutions to the problems locals raise.

“All of these things you’re saying, yes they are real concerns, these are real issues currently, but you wouldn’t want to have a successful business that doesn’t address these things if you’re trying to attract visitors and residents alike to come visit. We’re trying to get to the bottom of these problems,” DeLoach said at the forum. “We want to work with the community. We want to help address these concerns and find solutions.”

Additional traffic a casino would bring was one of the hottest topics brought up at the forum. Jeff Sanoff, resident and member of CB13, opposed the project, claiming it would make Coney Island congested year-round.

“During the Fourth of July weekend, it is impossible to go anywhere here. I don’t even take my car out at Brighton Beach. With the casino in Coney Island, it would be like the Fourth of July weekend every day,” he said.

DeLoach said the team has already proposed a way to address traffic congestion by advocating for an oceanside ferry, express trains and more frequent train services. 

Another stressor for residents was how small businesses would fare in the wake of an entertainment center. 

According to Cornegy, the team wants to integrate as many small businesses on the campus, which would be a “game changer” for mom and pop shops. He said since jobs stabilize a community as well as the growth of local business owners, developers will try to push casino attendees out into the community and offer a potential rewards program for them to shop at nearby stores. 

Council Member Ari Kagan spoke briefly and raised worries that the center would jeopardize local safety and security. At the beginning of the meeting, Diaz said local pols could only speak publicly if they shared whether they were for or against the casino.

“I hear overwhelming opposition to the casino and I strongly support this opposition,” Kagan said. 

No one at the assembly spoke in support of the casino, however,r Diaz said that does not mean there are no residents who are in favor of the casino.

According to a spokesperson with Coney casino team, the group knocked on thousands of doors as part of a field program and got 3,363 members of the community to sign a petition in support of the casino. 

“After going door to door and business to business, it’s clear that there is a groundswell of support within the Coney Island community for the type of year-round jobs and economic development that a gaming and entertainment district would bring to the neighborhood,” Cornegy said in a statement. “New Yorkers know a good deal when they see one, that’s why Coney Island residents are backing this bid as we work to revitalize the community and create real economic opportunities.”

Diaz told Brooklyn Paper she does not believe the pro-casino team’s number of supporters  is accurate. 

Cornegy said the bid will continue looking for community support even before their application is approved. 

“We are going to get as much input and have as many conversations with the community as we possibly can. So what tonight represents is us choosing not to go the other route that some people have gone,” he said at the forum. “We believe that every step along the way we should work hand in hand to bring this community in and to at least have the information out there.”

Meeting hijacked by developers

The forum brought additional controversy as community board members say representatives with Thor Equities — one of the developers behind the casino proposal — attempted to “hijack” the meeting and advertise it as an “employment information fair.” According to a CB13 spokesperson, Thor Equities never discussed the idea of a job fair and other amenities with the board.

CB13 coney island facebook postCB13 claim developers advertised the forum as a job fair and offered amenities without asking for board approval first. Photo via Facebook

Diaz said the board opposed the giveaways and free food, but the developers insisted. 

“Unacceptable in many ways,”  read a Facebook post in a Coney Island Facebook group. “The forum is to have the community give their input nothing else.”

Alleged padded comments

The CB13 forum came after a number of locals were upset they didn’t have a chance to speak openly at a meeting hosted by Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso on March 6. 

At the beeps’ engagement session, residents were instructed to write their feedback on sticky notes and leave them on a board.

All comments would be made public and shared with state offices, according to a spokesperson with Reynoso’s office. This format was to ensure that everyone’s comments were collected, as opposed to a town hall setting where people may feel too intimidated to comment. 

“I’ve been very concerned by the State’s public engagement process regarding the Coney Island casino. They’ve not allowed for much community input, nor are they sharing openly with local communities the details of these proposals,” Reynoso said in a statement. “My office set up our March public engagement sessions – as well as performed direct outreach to NYCHA residents, business owners, and students in the weeks that followed – to ensure the perspectives and needs of the Coney Island community were front and center from the beginning, and to ensure that any information our office has on the proposal is shared with the public.”

At the April 19 forum, Sharaya Means, a Coney Island native, called out a representative from the pro-casino team for posting his own comments on the board at the March 6 meeting — which Means says only benefits the developers and manipulates the public opinion.

“It was stated that they wanted the residents’ opinions. If you want residents’ opinions, shouldn’t it be delegated just towards residents and your staff should be aware of that,” Means told Brooklyn Paper. “There should be no confusion, we’re not asking for your opinion, we know what your opinion is.”

no casino signAnn Valdez has lived in Coney Island her whole life and thinks the casino does not prioritize the needs of the community.Photo by Jada Camille

According to the BP’s office, the sessions were open to the public, including residents, business owners and additional stakeholders. No one that attended the sessions was asked for identification nor prohibited from contributing feedback.

Means says the rep did not introduce himself as a Coney Island resident and therefore shouldn’t have been allowed to post his comments. 

“If you genuinely come in and want to get our concerns and opinions on the project that you’re bringing into a community that you’re choosing to elevate in some way then you shouldn’t rig the opinions,” she said. “You should genuinely care about what our concerns are and try to do your best to find a solution, not manipulate us.”

The representative, identified as Aaron Jones, declined Brooklyn Paper’s request for comment.

What’s next

On Monday, April 24  the executive committee of CB13 will be presented with a draft resolution and that resolution will go to the full board on Wednesday, April 26 before being presented to elected officials. 

According to Diaz, the resolution will likely be negative based on what the community has spoken.

“What we’re looking to accomplish here is to let people know residents live here,” she told Brooklyn Paper. “We endure this craziness six months out of the year but do we need to endure it for 12 months? We need quality of life. We need peace.”