The Cyclone Roller Coaster. The boardwalk. The famous hot dogs. Not to mention the aquarium, baseball stadium and expansive ocean beach. What else does Coney Island need?
According to Joseph J. Sitt, a longtime Coney Island landlord, the answer is a beachfront casino.
On Tuesday, Mr. Sitt, the CEO of Thor Equities, will announce a proposal, in conjunction with Saratoga Casino Holdings and the Chickasaw Nation, to attempt to secure one of up to three new casino licenses targeting the New York City area.
He is entering a race that is expected to feature a crowded field of heavyweight contenders, including the hedge fund manager who owns the New York Mets, the billionaire developer of Hudson Yards, and the owners of casino-style slot machine racetracks in Queens and Yonkers.
Mr. Sitt acknowledges that a Coney Island casino might be a gamble, but he says his proposal, unlike some others, would build on an existing buffet of entertainment options and help further one of New York City’s iconic attractions. to recover.
“People want to see the good guy win, the underdog win,” said Mr. Sitt in an interview from Abu Dhabi, where he attended the Formula 1 Grand Prix this weekend. “Unlike all spark plug projects.”
Mr. Sitt’s proposal is reminiscent of the past, both far away and otherwise. He envisions a rollercoaster winding under the Coney Island boardwalk, an indoor water park whose glass walls provide a view of a snow-covered beach, multiple hotels and museums.
In spirit, his plans hark back to the seaside resort’s heyday at the beginning of the 20th century. More closely, they recall a more recent era, when Mr. Sitt unsuccessfully tried to sell the Bloomberg government with a similar proposal, albeit without the casino.
Mr Sitt, founder of plus size women’s clothing brand Ashley Stewart, stressed that the casino would be more than a means of gambling. The project, he said, would be in keeping with Coney Island’s rich and often eccentric past, a place where fun-seeking outlandish things have been the local currency for more than a century.
“We don’t want to be known as Coney Island, the place to gamble,” Mr. Sitt said, using the word “crazy” repeatedly. “We really want it to be known as the total entertainment story: food, drink, rides, fun, water parks, rollercoasters.”
The proposed casino location is the first bid from Brooklyn, New York City’s most populous borough. The formal application process has not yet begun, but casino operators and real estate developers have already publicly announced their intended bids, a sign of how fierce the competition will be.
By law, the application process must open on January 6. And state regulators have said any decisions on the casino locations won’t be announced until sometime later in 2023 at the earliest.
Two other bids have been publicly announced so far, both in Manhattan. Related companies and Wynn Resorts propose a casino on an undeveloped portion of Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s west side; SL Green Realty Corp. and Caesars Entertainment set up a casino in a skyscraper in the heart of Times Square. And Steven Cohen, the owner of the Mets, is in talks with Hard Rock about an offer in Queens.
Mr Sitt argues that Coney Island – which has struggled to get back on track since its heyday – needed the economic boost the most and had the strongest local support.
Some Coney Island supporters are skeptical. Dennis Vourderis, the co-owner of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, said business was thriving without a casino and Coney Island is inherently seasonal regardless of Mr. Sit all year round. He also expressed concern that the power grid and sewerage infrastructure were already under strain.
In winter, “it freezes here,” said Mr. Vourderis in an interview. ‘A casino on Coney Island? I have many unanswered questions. I’m not convinced.”
Mr. Sitt, who grew up in south Brooklyn, describes the idea as a passion project, the product of a childhood who skipped school to hang out at theme parks. He says his childhood nickname was Joey Coney Island, and he still lives nearby in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Known as the “People’s Playground” since the early 1900s, Coney Island featured rollercoasters and freak shows and even new technologies. There was a time when incubators with premature babies were a popular attraction. It was also the founder of the modern amusement park.
Mr. Sitt has made a name for himself investing in retail properties across the country, as well as amassing large tracts of land on Coney Island and becoming one of the largest private real estate owners there.
His efforts to revitalize the beachfront neighborhood – which is also home to a cluster of public housing projects – have stalled.
Nearly two decades ago, Mr. Sitt city officials contemplated the idea of making Coney Island a year-round entertainment center. In a 2005 interview with New York magazine, Mr. Sitt described his hopes that a Las Vegas-style Bellagio Hotel would rise along the boardwalk.
Mr. Sitt’s thirst for city grants and a desire to build luxury homes and timeshares on Coney Island led to opposition from the Bloomberg administration, which developed its own plans for the area.
Eventually, the city purchased much of Mr. Sitt’s land and leased it to an amusement operator.
Mr. Sitt is now saying that to make his current $3 billion vision fly, a casino is needed. Otherwise, he says he can’t entice major retailers and hotel operators to open in Coney Island.
But potential obstacles await. The area currently has only a handful of smaller hotels, including a Best Western near the beach.
And while Coney Island’s beach and boardwalk are close to the subway, it’s still about an hour on the Q train from Midtown Manhattan—and possibly even longer than that by car.
Bill Rhoda, the president of Legends Global Planning, the project’s entertainment and hospitality consultant, said the goal was to build out the area in a way that would attract people year-round. One possibility, he said, was to build a convention center on Coney Island that could attract business travelers and possibly rival the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
The neighborhood is already home to the annual Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest and the Mermaid Parade, along with the Cyclone, the wooden roller coaster that opened in 1927. And, if Mr. Sitt has his way, maybe a casino.
“The sun, moon and stars are aligned for this potential moment for Coney Island,” said Mr. sitt.