Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Mets Boss Bets Big on Chinese Gamblers in ‘Vision’ for Parking Lot Development

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Mets owner Steve Cohen is in the on-deck circle playing a game where a home run wouldn’t mean an apple going up in the outfield but a casino rising in a parking lot just west of Citi Field. 

The billionaire hedge fund manager and his allies have been spending high-rolling sums on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts ahead of a potential bid for a coveted new state license for a full-service casino in New York City. 

That bid would pit him against stiff competition, but could pay off handsomely in part because the Citi Field parking lot where his casino would go is at the doorstep of Queens’ Chinatown, where gambling is a popular pastime. To develop the 50-acre lot at all, however, Cohen first needs clearance from state lawmakers.

New Green Willets — a limited liability company administered by Cohen’s close ally Vincent Tortorella and formed in January last year — disclosed to the state’s lobbying commission that it will spend more than $729,000 this year, or about the minimum salary for a Major League baseball player, including on licensing, gaming and land use issues. 

Cohen’s team did not answer questions specifically about the lobbying records.

To get dealt into the game, applicants for the new casino licenses, which the state Gaming Facility Location Board could award as soon as this year, have to first ante up a $1 million application fee and, if selected, immediately pay the state a license fee of at least $500 million — easily the biggest-ever charged in the U.S. The Board also notes that “an applicant may propose to pay a higher license fee.” 

In exchange, New York State will issue winning applicants what are widely expected to be licenses to print money in America’s most populous city — one with about 1.2 million people of Asian descent, the most of any American city. Some prospective casino operators here have cited “proximity to large Chinese populations as a top consideration,” according to the New York Times.

Mets owner Steve Cohen poses with former Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mr. and Mrs. Met, February 10, 2021.

Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Indeed, part of Cohen’s gamble appears to be a bet on the market of Chinese immigrants next door in Flushing, said a hedge fund analyst who covered gaming and casinos and declined to be named by THE CITY due to their company’s policy.

“The success of the Macau business proves the Chinese population loves gambling,” the analyst said — noting that the gross gaming revenue in the Chinese city, with a population not much larger than that of Staten Island, had exceeded the take of Las Vegas before COVID. 

Considering the prospect of a full casino in the shadow of Citi Field, the analyst said, “the parking lot’s proximity to the Chinese population in Flushing will make their trip to the casino much shorter than, say, traveling all the way to New Jersey” — or even to the city’s only “racino,” Resorts World NYC, the gaming destination in South Ozone Park that raked in about $850 million in revenue in 2021, more than any American casino outside of Nevada, despite offering only slot machines and electronically simulated table games, according to a 2022 report by the American Gaming Association.  

A High-Stakes Game

Before the parking lot could become a profit center, Cohen would have to face a six-member community advisory board appointed by local politicians like Councilmember Francisco Moya, Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry, State Senator Jessica Ramos, and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards — all of whom are included on New Green Willets’ long list of lobby targets last year.

But ahead of its prospective face-off with the community advisory board, Cohen’s potential bid would need to satisfy the Gambling Facility Location Board’s requirement that applicants show “evidence of compliance with zoning requirements.” To get the go-ahead to build a structure, New Green Willets needs the legislature to redesignate the parking lot, which has officially been public parkland since 1939. 

That hurdle has stopped past development schemes, including a plan by former Mets owner Fred Wilpon to convert the lot into a shopping mall, which the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, blocked in 2017.  

As Cohen angles to build on the lot, his family and associates have stepped up with donations to the campaigns of key local politicians.

His wife, Alexandra Cohen, donated $117,300 to the state Democratic Committee last year. And Michael Sullivan — the chief of staff at Steve Cohen’s equity management firm, Point72, and an in-house lobbyist of New Green Willets  —  gave nearly $35,000 in total to several state lawmakers who represent the direct or adjacent areas. That includes $9,400, $5,000, and $2,500 to Assemblymembers Aubry, Catalina Cruz and Jenifer Rajkumar, respectively, as well as $5,000 each to Queens State Sens. Ramos and Mike Gianaris, the deputy majority leader.

“I think anything is better than asphalt”

Lobbyists are also already at work on skeptical area politicians. “They have talked to me about it a number of times,” said Aubry. “The casino in my mind is important to them — not so important to me.”

But, Aubry continued, he is “willing to entertain” the proposal of a casino “without a guarantee that they can get it” as long as that gambling hall would create local employment opportunities — which he told THE CITY could also come from a supplementary development idea involving a food court for vendors and restaurants and an above-ground park connecting the 7 train station to the World’s Fair Marina.

Aubry said he is looking to pursue land use changes, which he could do under the same ruling that blocked the previous shopping mall plan while also finding that the state legislature had the power to enact “direct and specific” legislation authorizing non-recreational developments on public parkland.

In contrast, Ramos, also a Cohen lobbying target, said the state shouldn’t bypass the city to assume sole power in re-designating public parkland.

“That’s not right,” Ramos told THE CITY, adding that her team is exploring ways to incorporate the city’s public land use review process into state legislation that would redesignate the state parkland to allow for development. 

“I think anything is better than asphalt. And above all, my desire is for my communities’ voices to be heard.”

Counsels from the Communities

A “community visioning session” that Cohen attended at the Piazza 31 Club at Citi Field on a Saturday earlier this month sought input on potential plans for the parking lot — including “building dedicated open space for the public” and “connecting surrounding neighborhoods with the waterfront.” It drew more than 500 attendees. 

Participants were invited to use sticky notes to weigh in on questions gauging the community’s temperature: “What would improve your day at the ballpark? What would bring you to the ballpark area early? What would you stay late for?”

Queens residents wrote ideas for the possible Citi Field development on sticky notes, including “ferry service,” Jan. 7, 2023.

Popular answers included public green space, food hall with local vendors, integration with surrounding neighborhoods, and live entertainment. Gaming ranked near the bottom, even as many of the people who showed up to register their views seemed resigned to the possibility of a casino.

Janir Zeng, a consultant for international students and president of a provincial group called the U.S. Sichuan Chongqing General Association, said she hoped for more green space, as well as opportunities for vocational training, grassroots entrepreneurship and fair-wage employment for Flushing’s many new immigrants and English-language learners.

A casino is “of course good for the economy. It could create jobs and build an economic infrastructure,” Zeng told THE CITY in Mandarin. “At the same time, it conflicts with public safety concerns. The reason people oppose a casino is because it could attract crime and bring out high-interest underground loaners who target people with gambling losses and debts.” She says she doesn’t oppose a casino, but emphasizes that “it must be built on a premise that considers safety and economic development.”

As to what might happen to the parking lot if Cohen’s casino plans don’t come to fruition, Aubry told THE CITY that “as far as I’ve heard … they would not necessarily be wanting to go forward without a casino. The casino would provide the economic engine for the rest of the work that they propose.”

But, Aubry continued, “with the effort that they put in to meet with the community and look at the issues, I kind of surmise that they won’t want to stay with an empty parking lot no matter what.”

Wellington Chen, who has lived in the Flushing area since moving from Hong Kong in the 1970s and is executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, a Manhattan business group, told THE CITY that he hopes the parking lot could become something that connects Corona, the largely Latino neighborhood to its west, to Queens’ Chinatown on its east.

The area could become the borough’s version of Central Park, with the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park just next door, Chen said, instead of languishing as a parking lot marred by environmental pollution and cordoned off by highways over the decades.

Chinatown Partnership executive director Wellington Chen takes part in a visioning session for Citi Field’s parking lot.

But, Chen added, “I’m not sure [a] casino is a money-maker. Online gambling is taking over — so [a] casino on site? Maybe targeting the Chinese may be alluring, but there’s no guarantee.”

‘The Chinese Club’

In Southeast Queens, about seven miles from the Citi Field parking lot, Resorts World Casino New York City, itself a top contender for one of the three full licenses downstate, offers some sense of what a casino even closer to the borough’s Chinatown could be like. 

The Malaysia-based Genting secured a license to run an all-electronic casino after a nearly decade-long battle. Resorts World, which opened in 2010, has generated significant revenue for the state and of course its operators while remaining largely disconnected from the surrounding neighborhood.

“It has become a habit and in America they come here when they’re bored”

On a late Tuesday afternoon, a white minibus idled across from the elevated A train tracks near the Aqueduct Race Track in South Ozone Park: a shuttle full of seated patrons, most of them Asian, waiting to be transported less than half a mile down the street to the casino.

Shortly after the bus arrived at the racino, a middle-aged Chinese patron who lives in Flushing walked outside to smoke a cigarette. Speaking in Mandarin, the man, who declined to be named, offered to lead THE CITY upstairs to what he called “the Chinese club.”

He navigated to the third floor with alacrity, passing a swell of gamers crouching over electronic Baccarat machines, toward a high-roller club below a sign reading “Baccarat Club” in English and, in Chinese, “Hundred Joy Club.” A plaque on the oriental gate-fold doors read “Platinum Black card members only, referring to the highest, invitation-only players card through which gamblers “earn valuable rewards by playing your favorite slot machines or electronic table games.” Inside the Club, the walls were adorned by motifs that drew from a “Shanghai mod” theme and the 1960 film “The World of Suzie Wong” as players placed bets on Baccarat machines.

“Let’s just put it this way: I’m sure the percentage of regular visitors that are Chinese, definitely is way higher than the actual percentage of Chinese in the U.S population,” said the hedge fund analyst who covered gaming and casinos, and who also noted that many unlicensed gambling sites are located in Queens neighborhoods with sizable Asian populations like Long Island City and Flushing. 

Ayesha Ma, the racino’s vice president of Asian marketing, did not immediately return a request for comment about what a second casino in the borough would mean for Asian gamblers, and for Resorts World.  

Downstairs in the racino’s food court, 67-year-old Chun-sheng Li, visiting from Manhattan’s Chinatown, sat alone with a thermocup and a tupperware of cubed apples, scooping home-cooked vegetables out of his insulated food jar. It was his fourth hour in the casino that day. But he’s not there often, he said. Just about two or three times a week — and mostly to kill time, loiter, people-watch and soak up human energy. If anything, small games only.

People gamble inside the Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, Jan. 10, 2023.

“There are a lot of Chinese people living around here, plus gambling is a culture … They all used to gamble back in their hometowns in the mainland — in small ways and big. It has become a habit and in America they come here when they’re bored,” the retired restaurant worker said in Fujianese-accented Mandarin, adding that he sometimes meets people from his province speaking in the same dialect as him at the casino. 

Friendly gambling over mahjong and card games is commonplace in gatherings of friends and families and around major holidays like the Lunar New Year. But Li added that he approaches gaming with caution because he’s seen people become addicted and gamble their lives and families away. 

Introducing a brand-new casino to the Flushing area, where many Chinese live, is “of course not good,” Li added, also noting that some local restaurants he knows near Resorts World have seen a decline in business since its opening because people spend all their money inside the casino.

To this point, Cohen is keeping his options for the parking lot open, while laying out a broad vision of “putting community first” and “bringing year-round entertainment to life,” per a statement announcing the community input session

While he’s yet to submit a casino license bid, a Cohen spokesperson told THE CITY that the goal for now is to have 12 more “visioning” sessions to solicit more input “as we put forward a vision for a shared space”:

“Since 1939, this area has been nothing but parking lots. 50 acres of asphalt around a world class ballpark is a massive opportunity no matter where it is,” the spokesperson noted, in addition to sending a statement that read:. 

“The community has made it abundantly clear that we can do better than parking lots. In order to do this we will follow whatever process is required and be transparent because we are committed to doing this the right way.”

But Chen, who has served on the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals that rules on case-by-case zoning exceptions, anticipated rough roads ahead for the 50 acres of asphalt.

“It’s not about the casino — the casino will happen with or without this place. But the potential of the land is here. The question is, ‘what do you have to show?’” Chen said. “History is going to judge us.”

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