New York is banking on casinos to help its economic recovery. Can SF redeem?


Jobs, tourists and billions in royalties and taxes in the wake of a devastating pandemic are why New York City government officials are desperate to open new casinos.

With a metropolitan population of 23 million, the Big Apple is the country’s largest untapped market for casino gambling, and developers are rushing for gambling licenses.

Meanwhile, bad news keeps coming in downtown San Francisco.

Last week, Facebook vacated 435,000 square feet of office space in a high-rise on Fremont Street. And earlier this month, a new study ranked SF as the last dead country in the recovery of 62 North American cities from a pandemic, confirming the city’s bet on office space faced an unforeseen risk. Now City Hall is preparing to make deep cuts to address a projected budget deficit of $728 million while continuing to develop an economic recovery strategy.

San Francisco has a long history of vice. The town’s Barbary Coast past was steeped in gambling. Las Vegas may owe San Francisco a debt of gratitude – if not a few spins on the house – for having invented the three-reel slot machine in the late 1800s. A plaque at 406 Market St. commemorates creator Charles August Fey.

However, modern San Francisco is the most restrictive county in the state.

In nearby Alameda and San Mateo counties you can legally play ponies or toss coins in slot machines. But the City by the Bay doesn’t have a racetrack — anymore — or even off-track betting. There is no card room. There is no tribal casino. The California Lottery and charity bingo and poker games are all a bettor can legally play.

Tourism attracts millions of visitors each year, so a casino with stunning views of the bay would no doubt be a major draw. Can San Francisco Make Money?

Is gambling a serious prospect?

The opening of gambling in the city has been a dream for decades.

The city’s racetracks may have been developed long ago – the most notable remnant is the oval Urbano Drive on the site of the Ingleside Racetrack. But San Francisco doesn’t even offer off-track betting.

In the mid-1990s, State Assembly Speaker and future Mayor Willie Brown authored a bill allowing off-track betting.

Both the San Francisco County Fair and Cow Palace attempted to open an off-track betting shop at a Chinatown restaurant owned by the Fang family. Community resistance dropped the offer.

Not long after, Brown ran to build a Monte Carlo-style casino on Treasure Island after the Navy relinquished control of the military base. These roulette tables never came into existence either.

Though he may not have brought gambling to the city, Brown brought an American gambling venture to Asia in 2002 when he and the late Chinatown community leader Rose Pak helped secure a new Macau casino license for Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn .

Brown, when reached by phone, declined to speculate what post-Covid gambling would do for the city and said he hadn’t considered it.

A call to the London Breed Mayor’s office went unanswered. Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, said he had never considered the impact of legalized gambling.

The spokesman for the Office of Economic and Human Resources Development said the Economic Recovery Task Force had not been approached with Casino proposals.

Don’t bet on it

Aaron Peskin, president of the board of supervisors, said he didn’t think the city could open a casino even if the will was there — and that California and New York have different laws.

“San Francisco is not a federally recognized Native American tribe,” he joked. Card rooms and off-track betting shops “won’t look good for San Francisco.”

The Standard has reached out to the American Indian Cultural District for comment.

Californians flatly rejected competing voting measures in November that would have legalized sports betting for either tribal casinos or digital platforms. Last November, the San Franciscos voted against Proposition 26, which would have expanded gambling options — roulette, craps and sports betting — to tribal lands, and Proposition 27, which would have legalized online sports betting.

Another consideration would be the timeline for developing a casino in a city notorious for its bureaucracy.

Dan Sider, from the planning department, said planners needed to better understand the opportunities and externalities that come with gambling.

“A lot of land uses have places that they’re a particularly good — or bad — fit,” Sider said. “If that were to become a reality, and as we have done with other novel land uses, we would likely put in place a regulatory framework that would establish appropriate zoning along with other controls.”

There’s nothing like zoning to curb development.

After Brown, the most notable San Francisco official willing to try his luck at opening a casino was former head of public works Mohammed Nuru – who worked part-time as a developer.

Nuru later became embroiled in the ongoing City Hall corruption scandal and pleaded guilty to one charge of fraud. This lawsuit revealed mysterious details about Nuru and restaurateur Nick Bovis’ plans to build a casino.

But Nuru is serving a seven-​year sentence, so there won’t be a Bellagio-style fountain or Criss Angel residence in the Bay Area any time soon.