Queens: A Casino’s New Deal

The Resorts World Casino in Queen's South Ozone Park, is the most profitable casino in the state. Keenan Chen for NY City Lens.

The Resorts World Casino in Queen’s South Ozone Park, is the most profitable casino in the state. (Keenan Chen/NY City Lens)

Some major changes are coming to southeastern Queens in the next couple of years. A new hotel is under construction on the site of the vacant TWA Terminal. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January announced a proposed $10-billion overhaul of the John F. Kennedy International Airport that would add more lanes on the Van Wyck Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway, revamp the roadways connecting the terminals within the airport, and upgrade the AirTrain system.

Meanwhile, the casino in the neighborhood is ready to seriously up its game.

Resorts World Casino in South Ozone Park—the sole casino in the five boroughs—is planning to add a convention center and a hotel with 400 rooms. Construction could start this July, a company representative initially said, although the representative later maintained that there was no firm date yet.

The proposed expansion, which was submitted to state regulators last June and first reported by The Wall Street Journal, also includes a plan to increase the total number of electronic gambling machines by 1,000—to a total of 6,500. Genting Group, the massive Malaysian-based conglomerate and parent company of the Resort World New York, expects the construction will be finished by 2019, according the Journal.

In its five years of operation, Resort World New York has already become the most profitable casino in New York state by far. It had gaming revenues of $785.1 million in 2013, according to an analysis commissioned by the New York State Gaming Commission. The second highest-grossing casino is Empire City Casino in Yonkers, which had revenue of close to $600 million in 2013.

Some locals and leaders in Queens welcome the expansions; other are less than delighted. Disagreement over the casino’s expansion in a mostly residential neighborhood has never stopped since the first day it was reported.

For one thing, some civic leaders are unhappy with the convoluted deal that requires the casino to pay large sums to the Nassau Off Track Betting Corporation while giving New York City no gaming tax revenue.

The state budget passed last year approved a tentative agreement between the Resorts World New York and the Nassau Off Track Betting Corporation, one of the five similar public benefit corporations that was established by the state legislature in 1975. When local officials and residents opposed adding the 1,000 gambling machine that had been assigned to Nassau County, the Queens casino agreed to take them over and pay the Nassau Off Track Betting Corporation 35% of the revenues from the additional gaming machines in return.

In an editorial published last July, the New York Daily News criticized how “the new deal would… send as much as $25 million annually to Nassau’s OTB — while New York City, unique among the state’s casino hosts, receives nothing.”

Still, after years of lobbying and planning, the casino’s expansion seems to be in its final steps. For the first time, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz endorsed the expansion, in her State of Borough speech in February. Some other local officials who are in favor of the casino defend the expansion as a job creator and a “friend” to the neighborhood. Joseph Addabbo, a state senator (D-Howard Beach) and the ranking member on the Senate’s Committee on Racing, Gaming, and Wagering, said legislation regarding the expansion has been passed in the state level.

“The expansion will make the neighborhood a destination,” said Addabbo, a longtime supporter of the casino. Another supporter of the plan is Betty Braton, chairwoman of Queens Community Board 10, which covers South Ozone Park, Ozone Park, and Howard Beach. “From the point of view of the Community Board 10, they are a business,” she said, “and that is a plus in our community.”

The casino also comes with a promise to bring in tourists and rescue the New York Racing Association, which leases space to the casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack.

Because of TV live broadcast and the availability of off-site betting, the racetrack is no longer drawing the crowds it once did in past decades. “We used to get 25,000 on a weekday. On Saturdays we would maybe 55,000,” said Sonny Taylor, a placing judge at the racetrack for more than 50 years. “Now we get two, three thousand. Sometimes we might get four if lucky.” The New York Racing Association ran into such serious financial troubles that it had to file for bankruptcy in 2006, which prompted a state takeover.

Some small businesses in the neighboring area, however, seem to be less than excited about the casino’s expansion. On nearby Rockaway Boulevard, the neighborhood’s major retail area, several pawnshops opened in the years after the casino started operations, in October 2011. At Primos Pawnbroker Inc., owner Andre Arjun recalled seeing the potential and opened just months ahead of the casino.

“But most of our business comes from our neighbors,” said Arjun. “I would say only 25 percent of our business come from the casino.”

Since the casino launched in 2011, at least three pawnshops also open at about the same time on the Rockaway Boulevard, the neighborhood's main commercial area.

Since the casino launched in 2011, at least three pawnshops also have opened on the Rockaway Boulevard, the neighborhood’s main commercial area. (Keenan Chen / NY City Lens.)

Two blocks away, at the Stop 1 Deli Corp., Ali Muhammad, a longtime cashier, says the bodega has lost some business since the casino opened. “Because the casino has everything inside,” said Muhammad. “Before the casino, it was the flea market, which drew more people to come to us.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has remained mostly silent on the casino. In an email, Melissa Grace, deputy press secretary to de Blasio, wrote, “we have no comment” on the casino’s expansion.

The casino is viewed as a major source of increased gambling revenue in the state by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He once tried to negotiate a project for a $4 billion convention center at Aqueduct Race Track with the Genting Group, the Albany Times Union reported in 2012. This was just months after Resort World New York opened, on the former grandstand of the Aqueduct Racetrack, in October 2011. Cuomo’s office did not provide a comment despite multiple requests.

An analysis of political donors by the New York Public Interest Research Group found that the Genting Group is one of the biggest contributors in the state. From 2012 to 2014, Genting Group spent $2.5 million on lobbying and gave $984,00 in campaign contributions to state and local campaigns. In addition to its expansion in Queens, the Genting Group is also pursuing the development of three other casinos upstate, including one it would call the Resorts World Hudson Valley, in Orange County.

Back in Ozone Park, many local residents seem to know little about the proposed expansions and have doubts that the neighborhood will have the capacity to handle the likely increased traffic. “Casinos and hotels didn’t help Atlantic city,” said resident John Naimoli. “Why would it help Ozone Park?” But he also thinks a convention center could bring jobs to the neighborhood.

Phil Wong, a member of a resident association, Elmhurst United, was enthusiastic about possible jobs from the expansion, but less enthusiastic about the required payments to Nassau County. If people oppose the casino expansion, he said, they should “Go to your civic organization, community board, talk to you state senator, state assemblyman. Need to do protests if you want to stop this. This was proposed last July so the residents need to act fast.”

Braton, who has been chairwoman of the Community Board 10 in Queens since the 1990s, says the board doesn’t have much oversight of the project.  The casino is “not subject to the requirement to the city to present anything,” she said. “When they have finalized their plan and are ready to go into construction, they would certainly provide that, and mention it to the community board.”