The Cyclone roller coaster. The promenade. The famous hot dogs. Not to mention the aquarium, the baseball stadium and the wide ocean beach. What more could Coney Island need?
According to Joseph J. Sitt, a longtime Coney Island landlord, the answer is a beachfront casino.
On Tuesday, Mr. Sitt, the chief executive officer of Thor Equities, in partnership with Saratoga Casino Holdings and the Chickasaw Nation, will announce a proposal to attempt one of up to three new casino licenses for the New York City area.
He enters a race that is expected to feature a crowded field of heavyweight competitors 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 could be a long way off, but he says that unlike some others, his proposal would build on an existing buffet of entertainment options and help create one of New York’s iconic attractions City to continue to restore.
“People want to see the good guys win, the underdogs win,” Mr Sitt said in an interview from Abu Dhabi, where he was attending this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix. “Unlike all bougie projects.”
Mr. Sitt’s proposal is reminiscent of the past, distant and otherwise. He envisions a roller coaster running under the Coney Island boardwalk, an indoor water park whose glass walls overlook a snow-capped beach, several hotels, and museums.
In spirit, his plans date back to the beach town’s heyday in the early 20th century. More specifically, they recall a more recent era when Mr. Sitt unsuccessfully tried to sell the Bloomberg administration with a similar proposal, albeit without the casino.
Mr. Sitt, who founded plus size women’s clothing brand Ashley Stewart, stressed that the casino would be more than just a vehicle for gambling. The project, he said, would fit with Coney Island’s rich and often quirky past, a place where fun-filled eccentricity has been the local currency for more than a century.
“We don’t want to be known as Coney Island, the place to play,” 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, roller coasters.”
The proposed casino location is the first offering from Brooklyn, New York City’s most populous borough. The formal bidding process has not yet begun, but casino operators and real estate developers have already publicly announced their intended bids, a sign of just how fierce the competition will be.
According to the law, the application process must be opened by January 6th. And state regulators have said decisions about casino locations will not be announced “at the earliest sometime later in 2023.”
Two other offerings have been publicly announced so far, both in Manhattan. Related Companies and Wynn Resorts propose casino on vacant lot of Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s west side; SL Green Realty Corp. and Caesars Entertainment build a casino in a skyscraper in the heart of Times Square. And Steven Cohen, the Mets’ owner, is negotiating a Queens bid with Hard Rock.
Mr. Sitt argues that Coney Island – which has struggled to regain its footing since its heyday – needed the economic recovery most and had the strongest local support.
Some Coney Island faithful are skeptical. Dennis Vourderis, the co-owner of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, said that without a casino, business is booming and that Coney Island is inherently seasonal, regardless of Mr. Sitt’s year-round ambitions. He also raised concerns that the power grid and canal infrastructure were already overburdened.
In winter, “it’s freezing here,” Mr Vourderis said in an interview. “A casino in Coney Island? I have many unanswered questions. I’m not sure.”
Mr. Sitt, who grew up in South Brooklyn, describes the idea as a passion project, the result of a childhood spent skipping school to hang out at amusement parks. He says his childhood nickname was Joey Coney Island, and he still lives nearby in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Known as “People’s Playground” since the turn of the 20th century, Coney Island featured roller coasters and freak shows and even new technology—there was a time when incubators with premature babies were a popular attraction. It was also the forerunner of the modern amusement park.
Mr. Sitt made his name investing in retail real estate nationwide, but he’s also amassed large tracts of land in Coney Island and has become one of the largest private real estate owners there.
His efforts to revitalize the beach district – which also houses a cluster of social housing units – stand still.
Nearly two decades ago, Mr. Sitt proposed to city officials that Coney Island be turned into a year-round entertainment hub. In a 2005 interview with New York Magazine, Mr. Sitt described his hopes that a Las Vegas-style Bellagio Hotel would be built on the boardwalk.
Mr. Sitt’s thirst for city subsidies and his desire to build luxury homes and timeshares on Coney Island provoked opposition from the Bloomberg government, which was developing its own plans for the area.
Ultimately, the city bought much of Mr. Sitt’s land and leased it to an amusement operator.
Mr. Sitt now says a casino is needed to make his current $3 billion vision fly. Otherwise he says he can’t entice big retailers and hoteliers 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 although Coney Island’s beach and boardwalk are right by the subway, it’s still about an hour from Midtown Manhattan by Q train — and possibly even longer by car.
Bill Rhoda, the president of Legends Global Planning, the project’s entertainment and hospitality advisor, said the goal is to develop the area to attract people year-round. One possibility, he said, is building a convention center in Coney Island that could attract business travelers and potentially compete with Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
The neighborhood is already home to the annual Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest and Mermaid Parade, as well as 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 have aligned for Coney Island for this potential moment,” Mr. Sitt said.