How Broadway theater owners are trying to block a Times Square casino

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How Broadway theater owners are trying to block a Times Square casino
Max Klimavicius, the owner of Sardi’s, who believes that a casino would be bad for the theater district’s restaurants, in Manhattan on April 13, 2023. A new coalition, organized by the Broadway League, has formed to defeat a casino proposal backed by Caesars and Jay-Z. (Sarah Blesener/The New York Times)

by Dana Rubinstein

NEW YORK, NY.- Some New Yorkers may love Times Square; some definitely hate it. That also goes for a casino that may be headed there.

Caesars Entertainment and SL Green Realty Corp., New York City’s largest commercial landlord, say that Times Square — with its neon lights and jostling tourists — is tailor-made for their Jay-Z-backed bid for a parlor of one-armed bandits and roulette wheels.

Via their “Coalition for a Better Times Square,” they have enlisted dozens of local supporters, including roughly a dozen restaurants in the area; two hotel chains with properties nearby; several unions, including the Actors’ Equity Association and Local 802, which represents Broadway musicians; two local stores; and a handful of landlords.

But Max Klimavicius, the owner of the century-old Sardi’s restaurant, would like a word.

“A casino in Times Square has the potential to jeopardize the character of the theater district and ultimately the fate of its restaurants,” Klimavicius said. “Casinos are designed to keep the gamblers inside. They have their own restaurants.”

Sardi’s is part of a new coalition, organized by the Broadway League, that is designed to defeat the casino proposal. The group, called the No Times Square Casino Community Coalition, also includes two restaurants and a bar founded by Joe Allen, as well as a Times Square church, five residents associations, a bus association and a youth travel association.

Opposition to the project is to be expected: Protests have greeted proposals for casinos next to Citi Field in Queens, at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island and by the boardwalk in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

But because New York has fashioned a siting process that is heavily reliant on community input, any opposition may hold disproportionate weight. The approvals gantlet includes a six-person, site-specific community advisory committee, made up of representatives of local elected officials. A two-thirds majority of support is required for a proposal to move forward.

Liz Krueger, the state senator whose district encompasses Times Square and who has a vote on that committee, appears to be a no. “I’m still waiting for one human being who lives in my district who doesn’t work for one of the casino companies bidding or the PR companies working for them to tell me that they really, really think that a casino is a great idea,” she said. “I think it’s a terrible idea.”

The Broadway League, a trade association that represents theater owners and producers, agrees, suggesting that a casino would harm the neighborhood’s character and draw people away from the theaters that are so essential to New York City’s tourist economy, which is only now getting back onto its feet.

“We believe it challenges the cultural significance and the unique character that Broadway has delivered for New York for such a long time,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the Broadway League’s president. “Obviously, we are just coming back and getting healthy, and we believe that a casino will damage that character and damage attendance.”

This is hardly a David and Goliath battle pitting grassroots opposition against a corporate behemoth; both sides have plenty of capital and influence.

The Broadway League’s board includes Thomas Schumacher, the head of Disney Theatrical Group, whose “Lion King” musical runs at the Minskoff Theater — directly at the base of the SL Green skyscraper at 1515 Broadway where the casino is planned.

Schumacher declined to comment for this story.

Five of the league’s board members work for the Shubert Organization, Broadway’s biggest theater owner, whose headquarters and 17 Broadway theaters are all close to the proposed casino.

A spokesperson for the Shubert Organization declined to make one of its leaders available for an interview.

The No Times Square Casino Community Coalition includes the Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association, which represents residents at the 1,700-unit complex two blocks west of the Theater District. A large proportion of the residents are professional artists.

As it happens, the owner of that property, Related Cos., is also bidding to build a Manhattan casino, in its case over the rail yards on the Far West Side where it has promised to build a school and affordable housing.

Aleta LaFargue, the tenant association president, said the tenants voted to oppose the Times Square casino, and she opposes both. For LaFargue, it is personal. Gambling addiction afflicted her great-grandfather and her great-uncle, who spends his money on slot machines and is about to lose his house, she said.

LaFargue was speaking from Margate, New Jersey, where her mother grew up, just outside Atlantic City — many opponents’ Exhibit A as to why they do not want casinos in urban areas. She lives in Hell’s Kitchen, where she says drug abuse and street crime have risen in recent years.

“We’re really working to try to turn that around, and I think that bringing in a casino might be the worst thing we could ever do,” she said.

Ken Sturm, the owner of Bacall’s Family Steakhouse just down the street from Sardi’s, did not share the views of LaFargue or Klimavicius, whose concerns he dismissed as “stupid.”

“It’s a big shot in the arm for New York City to have it in midtown at this convenient location, versus Queens or Yonkers or some nonsense like that,” said Sturm, whose 5-year-old restaurant has been struggling to recover from the pandemic.

In 2022, New York state approved the issuance of up to three downstate casino licenses. At least eight proposals have been floated, with the region’s two existing racinos — horse tracks with electronic casino-styled games — potentially holding an edge. One of those is at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens; the other is in Yonkers, just north of the city.

Casinos are a divisive economic development strategy. Elected officials have a habit of overstating the projected tax benefits of casinos, and their economic impact often wanes over time.

“There’s always pretty significant divided opinion, with social advocates arguing for the problems associated with all the social harms, and economic advocates arguing that they’re losing money to neighboring states,” said Robert Williams, a coordinator at the Alberta Gambling Research Institute. “It’s the same story over and over again.”

For decades, those concerned with the social harms associated with gambling tended to win the day, he said. But in recent years, Williams has noted a change, as the casino industry has become a “juggernaut,” he said.

“It tends to be the casino proponents that are winning these days,” Williams said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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