OP/ED The New Money Train—from Aqueduct to Albany

The glistening white mega-yacht navigates the placid waters of the East River at dusk, against the backdrop of a jaw-dropping Manhattan skyline. It gently pulls into the Domino marina where it disgorges its impeccably GQ outfitted owner nursing a vodka martini—shaken, not stirred—in hand, and sporting a designer-label white dinner jacket. Accompanying him are assorted hangers-on and a phalanx of black-clad bodyguards wearing Armani shades. They will all take a short stroll to the VIP entrance of the new Domino Casino—the Big Apple’s Casino Royale.

The former Domino Sugar Factory is now the name of the casino, along with the convention center complex that extends all along the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, built over the rubble of non-historical industrial buildings and other non-descript structures. The name “domino” conjures up games of chance—a “sweetener” of a different kind, frequently the name of the femme fatale in countless action movies, particularly for 007. This siren’s name represents the seduction of the gullible and weak-willed to financial ruin at Domino dockside, where the House always wins.

The newly renovated historical structure boasts an endless variety of VIP rooms, including the ultra-exclusive Sugar Daddy Suites, where wealthy yet insecure middle aged men can “entertain” their younger wives or mistresses. If you’re going to sell your soul, why not go first-class?

Even the unwashed will have access to the new convention center and casino, arriving by ferry, auto, and subway to the formerly hip, now chic, and soon-to-be decadent Williamsburg, the new property of the 1%, where square footage rents and leases equal, and sometimes exceed, those of prime Manhattan real estate. The new Domino is complemented by highly rated restaurants nearby, such as Isa, Mercado, Diner, Peter Luger, La Esquina on Wythe, and many others either new or extensions of their Manhattan venues. Let’s face it, Williamsburg is chic, wealthy, and has a waterfront, huge advantages over Aqueduct in South Ozone Park. Williamsburg even sounds sexier.

Does this scenario sound like a twisted nightmare? Until recently the thought of a casino in South Ozone Park seemed like folly and fantasy until a $45 billion Malaysian plantation, oil, and hospitality conglomerate called Genting decided to increase their U.S. market share in a big way.

For the Aqueduct casino, Genting shelled out $380 million for non-refundable licensing fees, $80 million above the New York State minimum requirement, almost a 30% premium! A conglomerate doesn’t make that kind of financial commitment unless it has formulated contingency plans to operate elsewhere in New York City. This level of corporate acquisition indicates a shrewd and ruthless plan to place a Godzilla footprint somewhere local that has lots of available land. (And you thought those ripples in your Olso java were from a truck passing by.) The $80 million premium almost guarantees Genting will operate somewhere in the five boroughs. With its vast underdeveloped waterfront properties, Williamsburg-Greenpoint is in their crosshairs.

The waterfront is the “jewel in the crown” of Brooklyn and is highly vulnerable to the class of mega-projects that reduce, even destroy, quality of life. South Ozone Park isn’t the only neighborhood that could face this dilemma.

According to the 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission, compulsive gambling rates double in areas within 50 miles of a gambling facility. Well, Aqueduct “racino” is a mere 14 miles from Manhattan.

Factor in the city’s demographics, and the casino location, and hundreds of thousands of casual gamblers are a mere gentle shove or whisper away from the dark side of the game of chance. Just look at the Lotto junkies who monopolize your local newsstands and shops, most of whom have little savings. Daily. It’s addiction at the point of sale.

According to Steven Huberman, dean of the Touro School of Social Work, quoted in the February 10th issue of The Daily News, New York City already has 302,000 gambling addicts. Huberman added that, nationally, less than 0.5% of pathological gamblers are being treated by state-funded programs.

The late OTB was a specific kind of gambling—horse racing—but it was gambler and fan specific. How can Governor Cuomo explain how this venture will be different from the venal corruption and financial disaster of OTB?

State sponsored gambling and other games of chance are, for us, like the oil-rich, developing countries—a blessed and bountiful resource that man turns into a curse; a source of revenue that promises to solve society’s ills, but that inevitably turns rancid.

But this is much more than just a moral issue.The instant access to credit and savings via ATMs is rocket fuel for a problem that will spiral out of control faster than you can imagine. Increased addiction means more crime. More crime means more money required to pay law enforcement. More arrests result in more court cases followed by more prison sentences. Prison sentences mean more broken families, which results in more pressure on social services and other safety nets. It’s a devilish multiplier effect.

The financial future of thousands of city families is at stake. The comments made by pro-casino politicians with respect to gambling revenues outweighing gambling addiction are ethically and morally insensitive. It’s a slap in the face to their constituents. And does either Cuomo or Mayor Bloomberg care? Of course not.

These are “bottom line” guys. By that time, Bloomberg will have left office and Cuomo will go on to higher political office. They’ll simply blame the new city and state administrations for not maintaining the untenable early financial success of the project.

According to the February 13-19th issue of Crain’s New York, Genting is bearing the total cost of construction of the convention center and fully admits that the trade show revenues will be marginally profitable. This is a brilliant move, because the convention center will serve as the feeder system to the casino. Already they’re working on the transportation logistics, like express A trains and Air Train connections.

You build a casino and they will come—and suddenly additional transportation monies are available for added service for gamblers, but not for most New Yorkers going to work or school, particularly during off-hours.

Racino, operated by the same Genting group, earned $90 million in revenue in 2011. Several revenue projections (provided by non-independent sources) range from $300 to $400 million annually. High-ranking politicians claim it’s a tax-free alternative for filling the state’s coffers. Casino revenues are cleverly disguised taxes.

The Crain’s article stated that the scheduled demolition of the Jacobs Javits Center will occur sometime in 2013, after $463 million in renovations have been completed. Although the Javits Center is only the twelfth largest convention center in the country, its trade show occupancy rate of 70% makes it a profitable going concern. So why does Albany label it outdated?

Should Genting secure the South Ozone Park area for a casino, that doesn’t mean Williamsburg-Greenpoint is out of the woods. As the old saying goes, “Just because the cat is out of the bag, doesn’t mean that the bag is empty.” Many large American and foreign corporations are holding a record 6% of all their assets in cash, which gains almost no interest. They’re holding it, waiting patiently for a golden opportunity in already gentrified Williamsburg-Greenpoint, where large tracts of underdeveloped, fallow waterfront is a can’t-lose real estate investment. With cash, they won’t have to bother with cumbersome IPOs or bonds, which require disclosure (a.k.a. warning signs). Cash is king, which means future acquisitions will come quite suddenly.

The New York State vote on this change of amendment proposal will take place sometime in November 2013, ironically, immediately after the city mayoral elections. So express your concerns to get this issue on everyone’s agenda. Ramp up the pressure on Council Member Steven Levin, local businesses, community leaders, and organizations to kill this amendment for live table gambling before it kills you.

The time is now—before the 2013 mayoral campaign gets underway—to take a stand against this kind of development.


Albert Goldson is an architectural and engineering contract manager specializing in transportation mega-projects, energy, and urban planning. He has been a resident of Williamsburg for ten years and is an internationalist and jazz aficionado.