You know Leon DiLeonardo is a regular at Resorts World by his attire: his sweatshirt has the casino’s logo emblazoned on his back.
He told NY1 around Resorts World, they call him “Never Lose.”
“At one time, they considered me the best roulette player in the whole casino, and now they consider me the best poker player, because I’ve been playing this for the last two years plus or something like that,” DiLeonardo said, nestled next to a video poker game in the middle of the casino. “Nobody wins all the time, and if they tell you they do, they’re only lying to you.”
A retired court officer who was on the courthouse steps during the 9/11 attacks, he now spends his days playing video poker or roulette. He lives nearby, so Resorts World is convenient. It gives him something to do.
But DiLeonardo may soon get a few more options.
“Supposedly, they’re thinking about putting one in Coney Island,” he said. “And they’re thinking about putting one in Citi Field where the Mets play. If you put too many casinos, if you build too many, it gets watered down.”
This is a high-stakes game that’s been playing out behind the scenes for years: the competition to bring full-fledged casinos to New York City and its suburbs.
Some of the biggest casino companies and real estate developers in the country are now vying for up to three casino licenses for the downstate region that could be awarded by the state gaming commission in the coming months.
Already, about 11 projects have been floated and are expected to put in applications with state gaming authorities sometime this summer.
That will officially trigger what is proving to be the biggest competition the gaming and real estate industry has seen in decades outside of Las Vegas, where these companies will be judged on job creation, economic development and community support.
The winners will likely make billions of dollars — there is a lot at stake.
A study commissioned by state gaming authorities in 2021 found potential gaming revenue in New York City could reach more than $5.3 billion annually — a lucrative opportunity not to be missed.
There are already several casinos in the downstate region — including Resorts World in Queens and Empire City Casino in Yonkers. But those locations only operate video lottery terminal machines, similar to slots. Both companies want a full-scale commercial casino license with table games and betting on sports.
Many stakeholders think they are the frontrunners to get them, because they are already up and running.
“If we are awarded the license, you are talking about significantly more job creation, significantly more private investment coming back to this community and again, us having the ability to deliver on these promises we made 12 years ago,” said Meghan Taylor, a vice president of government affairs and public relations at Resorts World Casino.
Resorts World, owned by the Malaysia-based Genting Group, did not want to show its cards yet. It’s keeping details of its proposal quiet for now.
“We would have table games really built into the floor plan here,” Taylor said while walking along the casino floor. “We’re excited to be able to submit the plans to the state in the coming months that shows the ins and outs of what that is going to look like, but we believe we will be able to provide a product to this community that they could be proud of and really excited to be part of.”
But like its competition, it's planning to submit a proposal that will expand its current facility.
About 20 miles north, MGM Resorts, which operates Empire City Casino, is not tipping its hand either.
“I can’t tell you exactly what we have planned, but if you imagine that this wall is no longer here and you see there is even more to see beyond this that’s what we’re really excited about, is being able to put our stamp as MGM on not just the operations of this place but the design, and the look, and the feel, and the aesthetic,” said Ed Domingo, the general manager of Empire City Casino. “We think it’s going to be something pretty incredible.”
They are expected to build out their facility to include an entertainment venue. They do not have plans to incorporate a hotel initially.
“We also have over 50 acres of undeveloped land on this site that’s mostly parking lot, frankly, and what we can add there really gets me excited,” Domingo said. “MGM is not just a fortune 500 gaming and hospitality company. We’re also one of the biggest entertainment companies in the entire world.”
Not everyone thinks these two companies are ahead in the game.
“I think there is good reasons for the site selection committee to consider those two incumbents, the VLTs,” Brian O’Dwyer, the chair of the state Gaming Commission, said. “There are also good reasons for them not to.”
The commission will have a final sign-off on who gets these licenses. O’Dwyer dismissed the idea that Resorts World and Empire City have an advantage in this competition.
“Building a brand new facility as opposed to reconstructing one is going to provide far more construction jobs than the existing facility, having a new facility instead of converting an existing facility will bring far more revenue into the state, because you’ll have two rather than one,” he said. “There are advantages within the legislation that indicate that, but there are also significant disadvantages.”
Perhaps that raises the odds for the many other applicants.
You have Mets owner Steve Cohen hoping to build a casino in the shadow of Citi Field. And Related Companies and Wynn Resorts are looking to build one over the West Side Rail Yards.
You have SL Green, Caesars and Roc Nation looking to renovate a Times Square skyscraper for gaming and a hotel. Another proposal from the Soloviev Group and Mohegan suggests building housing, a park, a museum and a casino on this vacant lot south of the United Nations.
Saks Fifth Avenue has pitched a luxury casino on three of the top floors of its flagship store. Vornado Realty Trust is studying the possibility of applying for a casino license at the site of the former Hotel Pennsylvania.
And in Brooklyn, a local developer is pitching a casino and hotel next to the Coney Island boardwalk. In the Bronx, Bally’s wants to take over the Trump golf course, get rid of the name and build a casino there.
And on Long Island, Las Vegas Sands is hoping to redevelop the area surrounding the Nassau Coliseum. NY1 asked the head of the Gaming Commission what it will take to win.
He said: “A lot of money. It will take a lot of money. It will take a lot of work to gather community support. The community will have to weigh in. The labor unions will have to weigh in.”
Regardless of who wins, in fees alone, the state could get at least $1.5 billion if three licenses are awarded. According to the governor’s budget, officials project these casinos will also create somewhere between $462 and $826 million in annual tax revenue.
Of course, the process of winning is not easy.
Applications will be due as early as this summer. From there, each will go to a newly formed, local community advisory committee, which in the city is comprised of representatives of six local elected officials. Four of the six have to approve the application for it to move forward.
The application will also need local zoning approval. If approved, it will go before the Gaming Facility Location Board, which will recommend up to three applicants for these licenses. The full Gaming Commission will then sign off on that decision.
“This is what most people don’t understand,” O’Dwyer said. “I think we’re talking 18 months to two years. It is a long process.”
Back in Resorts World, some gamblers like DiLeonardo, aren’t looking to up the ante too much.
“I wouldn’t put more than, have more than two. If it was me, you got this one and maybe one other one would suffice,” he said.
He’s pretty satisfied with his current hand.