Amanda Septimo has a vision for the Hunts Point neighborhood in her South Bronx district, one in which a new casino spurs economic activity that could lead to hundreds, if not thousands, of permanent, well-paid, unionized jobs for her constituents.
The New York assemblywoman from District 84 sees a future in which the casino operator builds a ferry terminal serving other waterfront points in the New York area, contracts with neighborhood businesses for the supplies it needs, and otherwise helps lift the community. Yankees fans could make a day of it, hitting the tables or sportsbook during the day and then traveling 15 minutes west to see the Bronx Bombers at night.
There’s just one problem.
“I myself cannot build a casino, no matter how much I’d like to,” Septimo said.
Why the South Bronx?
Septimo is in the process of organizing a May 21 town hall meeting (a location is not yet firmed up) to hear from members of her community about the proposal she first floated a couple of weeks ago. But she said she has already had early conversations with a couple of casino operators that have expressed interest in nabbing one of the three downstate casino licenses to build in Hunts Point.
While places like Manhattan or Long Island may have a perceived edge over the Bronx because their residents, on balance, have more expendable income, Septimo said the early reaction from operators — whom she declined to name — has been enthusiastic about Hunts Point.
“More than anything, I think any industry wants to be operating in a community that wants them there,” Septimo said. “I don’t have to tell you how we’ve seen mega projects — [Amazon] HQ2 being the foremost example — get derailed, because the community partnerships weren’t as strong as they needed to be. I think it’s feasible and, in conversations I’ve had, no one is saying, ‘Hey, that’s not workable,’ or, ‘That’s not possible.’ It’s been more like, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity. We’re really interested. Can we talk?’”
Like most people involved in the process, Septimo views MGM’s Yonkers racino as a foregone conclusion to nab one of the full-service licenses from the New York State Gaming Commission. Many observers also see Genting’s racino property in Aqueduct as a strong contender to get another. Could political in-fighting in places like Manhattan and Long Island open the door for the Bronx to claim the third? Septimo thinks so.
“Politics get really hairy on just about everything on Long Island,” Septimo said. “Whoever wants to do that, it’s their job and more power to them.”
The last comparable project in Septimo’s district was the construction of the new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009. The beauty of Septimo’s current proposal, she points out, is it wouldn’t come with more than $1 billion in the form of public subsidies and tax breaks. The casino operator would foot the bill entirely, potentially even throwing in the ferry service for free.
The size and appeal of the potential customer base becomes apparent when you consider operators continue to show interest despite a licensing fee that already has been announced as at least $500 million on top of construction costs.
Problem gambling issues to consider
The Bronx has the highest poverty rate in New York City, and the South Bronx is the poorest area of the borough, leading some people to question whether a casino would prey on underprivileged residents. Septimo points out that Yonkers and Queens aren’t exactly difficult to get to for South Bronx residents and is insistent that problem gambling in and of itself shouldn’t derail the project in her district.
Ed Garcia Conde, who writes for Welcome2TheBronx about issues in his home borough, posted a poll and told local network PIX11 he found that most residents were against the idea of a casino in the area, saying, “Some of the lowest-income communities in New York City are going to be going to this casino in their backyard using what little income they have.”
Septimo said she’ll listen to complaints like Conde’s at the town hall meeting, but she thinks people sometimes conflate problematic behavior with the industry itself.
“We have to have a separate conversation about how New York deals with addiction services and addiction treatment. That’s an important conversation in its own right, but I do think it’s a separate one,” Septimo said. “By that standard, we shouldn’t open more liquor stores, or any number of industries shouldn’t be allowed to grow, because people struggle with it. I don’t think most people would say the answer to addiction is prohibition.”