Hard Rock Cafe's Russia ties imperil bid for NY casino

New York Post
Hard Rock Cafe's Russia ties imperil bid for NY casino

Gaming operator Seminole Hard Rock’s highly anticipated bid for a New York City casino license has been complicated by its business ties to Russia, sources told The Post. 

The ubiquitous Hard Rock brand — founded by Americans in London in 1971 and purchased by the Seminole Tribe of Florida in 2007 — has long been expected to announce its application for a license, potentially with Mets owner Steve Cohen, to build a casino next to CitiField in Willets Point, Queens.

But it has not yet done so, and sources close to the bidding process say it’s because of the Russia connection to the theme-bar/restaurant and casino chain.

Gov. Kathy Hochul last year issued an executive order barring any state entity from contracting with a firm doing business in Russia shortly after strongman President Vladmir Putin’s military invaded Ukraine.

Hochul’s order, noting that New York has the largest ethnic Ukrainian population in the US, said, “The State will not permit its activities as a participant in the marketplace to support an unjustified war by Russia and the killing of innocent Ukrainians.

“All Affected State Entities are directed to refrain from entering into any new contract or renewing any existing contract with an entity conducting business operations in Russia.”

She and Mayor Eric Adams also called for divesting any public or pension funds from Russia.

Hard Rock has had two franchise restaurants in Russia — one in Moscow and the other in St. Petersburg, which has its own face book site.

Hard Rock, in a statement this week, said the the issue is now moot.

“Hard Rock does not own or operate any property in Russia.  The independently owned Hard Rock Cafe in Moscow closed months ago. The independent operator of the Hard Rock Cafe in St. Petersburg agreed to close operations March 13,” the company spokesman said.

“Since the beginning of the war, Hard Rock International joined the millions of people around the world condemning the unprovoked attack on Ukraine and its people. At that time, Hard Rock vowed to suspend all future investment and development in Russia, donate all profits from the two franchise locations in Russia to humanitarian causes in Ukraine.”

Advocates for a free Ukraine said playing such business Russian Roulette is dangerous.

Yale University’s School of Management issued a report card that identifies firms that have severed business ties with Russia and exposed other firms still doing business there.

It gave Hard Rock an “F” grade, citing it as one of 238 companies that were “digging in” and “just continuing business-as-usual in Russia” and “Defying Demands for Exit or Reduction of Activities.”

Meanwhile, Hard Rock has been politically active.

The gaming firm’s executives contributed $50,000 to Hochul’s re-election campaign prior to her executive order being signed, and later held a fundraiser for her, ultimately contributing at least $100,000 for her 2022 run, campaign finance records and published reports show.

Hard Rock also spent $110,000 lobbying state lawmakers on casino gaming prior to the order signing and at least $120,000 afterwards, according to state lobbying records.

A Hochul spokesperson responded, “As part of Governor Hochul’s strong actions to stand with Ukraine and against Russia’s unjust war, the Governor issued Executive Order 16 (EO 16) prohibiting State agencies and authorities from contracting with businesses conducting business in Russia, ensuring no future investments would aid Russia. In order to comply with EO 16, affected State entities must obtain a certification from bidders as part of a solicitation for a new contract or extension of an existing contract that the business has no dealings with the Russian government, including those on the Federal sanctions list.”

A spokesman for the state Gaming Commission said no date has been set yet for a casino bid, and that Hard Rock and other potential bidders have yet to submit formal proposals.

“No applications have been submitted for consideration – and won’t be submitted until the due date, which is to be determined. Beyond that, we are not commenting or opining on any potentially proposed project,” said the Gaming Commission’s Brad Maione.

Hard Rock Cafe in St. Petersburg opened in 2018. The Hard Rock Cafe Moscow, a short drive from Red Square and the Kremlin, opened in 2003.

Other gaming operators are vying for one of three downstate casino licenses.

Gaming giant Bally’s is betting on The Bronx — proposing a casino on the Trump Organization’s public golf course at Ferry Point.

The owners of the existing slots parlors at the Aqueduct race track in Ozone Park, Queens and Yonkers race track — Genting/ Resorts World and MGM’s Empire City — are expected to submit bids to expand their offerings to include table games.

Meanwhile, Mets owner Cohen is eyeing a casino near the team’s stadium in Flushing, Queens. A 25,000-seat professional soccer stadium is also planned in the vicinity.

Others planning bids to operate a casino include the Steve Ross-Related Companies/Wynn Resorts partnership for Hudson Yards, the landlord SL Green/Caesars Entertainment team in Times Square and a consortium pushing for a gaming facility in Coney Island, whose partners include Legends, which is co-owned by the Yankees organization.

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