An ‘economic boom’: Should Hunts Point get a casino?

happy woman gambling at casino playing slot machine
A state lawmaker wants to bring a casino to the South Bronx, and local leaders are interested. Pictured, gamers play the slot machines at the Empire City Casino in Yonkers.
Photo courtesy Getty

With downstate licensing now in play, state Assemblymember Amanda Septimo envisions the economic engine of a casino illuminating the Bronx’s Hunts Point waterfront with slot machines and unionized wages in workers’ pockets.

The new state budget, which was enacted on Saturday, April 9, allows for three new full casino licenses, but two sites that already offer electronic betting will be known competitors: Resorts World New York City at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens and Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway in Yonkers.

Left wondering where the chances fall for the third site, Septimo wants to lead the cause for her South Bronx district, knowing it will take a lot of listening. The Concourse Democrat wants to engage the community from the outset, and has already taken the temperature of local leaders.

“We never want to be in a position where folks are feeling like the project is being jammed down their throat, that they weren’t considered or talked about,” she said in an interview with the Bronx Times, floating the idea of a town hall.

In a statement to the Bronx Times, Mayor Eric Adams championed expanded gaming options in New York City as the quickest way to reinvigorate the city’s economy.

“Bringing casinos to our city will create thousands of new jobs, attract more tourists, and spur billions in economic activity for our city and state,” he said. “The process of siting these facilities, however, must allow for robust local input.”

Gamers play the slot machines at the Empire City Casino in Yonkers. Photo Lucas Jackson, Reuters

Community boards comprised of representatives appointed by Adams’ office and other elected officials will assess the impact on communities local to potential sites.

Adams did not comment on the prospect of a Bronx location.

After recently Tweeting her support for a Bronx casino, Septimo faced what she called a “natural skepticism that comes with being in the South Bronx” and hearing about a proposal involving a lot of money.

The South Bronx has missed out on big economic projects in the past, particularly ones that develop the local economy, the state lawmaker said. A casino could bring thousands of construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs, she added.

City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr., whose South Bronx district includes Hunts Point, said that while advocating for a casino is not a priority for him, he envisions vacant Hunts Point waterfront property as a good site for one.

“If I get a call from someone that’s interested in doing this, my ears and my doors are open to hearing them out and making sure that it’s the right fit,” the Longwood Progressive told the Bronx Times. “And if it’s something that could be a reality and my community could benefit from, I will support it.”

Salamanca, who chairs the powerful City Council Land Use Committee, would want to sit down with developers to talk about quality union jobs designated for locals and a community benefits plan.

“There are other factors,” he said. “You can’t just say you’re for it 100%.”

Councilmember Amanda Farías, whose district neighbors Salamanca’s to the east, had a similar reaction. The Parkchester Progressive said she is happy to support a councilmember who wants a casino, particularly with local hiring, living wages and career pathways.

All in all, if the development would benefit Bronxites instead of putting a burden on them, she’s interested.

“Generally, I think bringing any new type of career, job, economic growth opportunity to the Bronx, where our employment was the most affected during the pandemic, is a great idea,” said Farías, who chairs the City Council Economic Development Committee.

A flag flies on the racetrack near the Empire City Casino in Yonkers, which will compete for one of the three downstate commercial casino licenses. Photo Lucas Jackson, Reuters

City Councilmember Diana Ayala, whose district neighbors Salamanca’s to the west and south, did not respond to requests for comment.

Salamanca pointed out that the possibilities wouldn’t stop with table games, as lodging and restaurants would add to the potential of an “economic boom.”

And some of the concerns, like increased vehicular traffic and an influx of people in the area playing with cash, provide opportunities to advocate for more public transit, such as a ferry stop, and more police in the area, he said. Farías also emphasized transit options as part of the equation.

The proximity to Yonkers’ Empire City — it sits mere minutes from the Bronx border — may pose challenges for making a Hunts Point site a reality, but Salamanca said the Bronx should still be part of the conversation.

More than 30% of Empire City’s workforce — more than 1,000 people — are Bronx residents, according to a spokesperson for MGM resorts, which owns Empire City. While the spokesperson said Bronx residents patronize the venue, he did not provide data as to how many.

In a statement to the Bronx Times, Bill Hornbuckle, chief executive officer and president of MGM Resorts, said the company plans to apply for a commercial casino license “and is excited by the opportunity to bring thousands of quality jobs and meaningful private investment to Westchester and the region.”

Resorts World in Queens did not respond to requests for comment.

Septimo pointed out how the Yonkers and Queens casinos are in distinct communities, and other casinos — such as in Connecticut — still succeed with proximity.

And New Yorkers like to gamble, toppling New Jersey residents as the nation’s highest-spending mobile sports betters shortly after it became legal in New York on Jan. 8.

Within the first 30 days of legalization, New Yorkers poured almost $2 billion into online sports betting, generating more than $70 million in tax revenue, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul.

The Bronx Problem Gambling Resource Center provides services to people whose lives have been adversely impacted by problem gambling, which the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports serves calls a “hidden addiction.”

Venus Moore, a team leader at the Bronx center, told the Bronx Times that while her office has a neutral stance on gambling, she hopes any future Bronx casino would provide funding for prevention and treatment services.

“Gambling is just like any addiction, it’s all about accessibility,” she said.

According to Hochul’s office, a Gaming Facility Location board will be established, with most of its members appointed by Oct. 6, and a request for applications will be issued within the following three months.

Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson could not be reached for comment.

Reach Aliya Schneider at [email protected] or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

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