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Willets Point redevelopment leads to millions spent on lobbyists

NYCFC will open a stadium at Willets Point, Queens in 2027
That shiny new Willets Point development brings with it lots of money spent on political lobbyists

Since 2022, millions of dollars have been spent on political lobbying related to the redevelopment of Willets Point, Queens, with billionaire Mets owner and New York City FC’s sometime landlord/future neighbor/possible nemesis Steve Cohen leading the way. 

The annual report from New York State’s Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government for 2022 was released last week, and it showed that the Cohen-controlled New Green Willets, LLC was one of the state’s top 10 real estate lobbying spenders last year.

NYCFC ranked below their billionaire Queens neighbor on the lobbyist spending charts, but 2022 was still a record-setter across the team’s years of lobbying aimed at securing a location in New York City for a soccer specific stadium. Even with a stadium site secured, the club’s lobbyist work looks to be expanding in 2023 as the stadium deal progresses toward and through the local governmental approval process.

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Cohen spends big with New Green Willets

The report revealed Cohen’s firm spent $727,318 on 2022 lobbying as it tried to win political support for the casino-centered development the billionaire would like to erect on some of the 50 acres of parking lots that surround Citi Field. 

Mid-year 2023 lobbying disclosures filed with the state show that Cohen’s spending has intensified in 2023, with New Green Willets already reporting $1.06 million in lobbying costs through the end of June. 

That puts the lobbying bill of Cohen’s group at $1.79 million since 2022, when he kicked off his political influence campaign in search of one of the three soon-to-be-handed-out “downstate” casino licenses. The price is likely insignificant to a man Bloomberg estimates to be worth $13.9 billion, but it stands out given the short window of time in which the sum was accrued.

Those lobbying dollars, thus far, have not translated into the political support Cohen needs to turn his casino plan from dream to reality. Besides lobbying, he’s also tried to leverage his control of the Citi Field parking lots against NYCFC’s portion of the Willets Point redevelopment plan, and has tried to wedge his desired casino-led development into the plans that include the NYCFC stadium and thousands of units of affordable housing.

The Citi Field parking lots are officially considered parkland that needs to be “alienated” by local city and state government in order to be developed into the casino-and-resort complex Cohen wants. Thus far, Cohen hasn’t been able to convince the politicians who represent the communities around Citi Field to advance the legislation needed to clear a path for this portion of Willets Point’s redevelopment.

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NYCFC’s lobbying efforts increase

NYCFC’s spending on political lobbying also hit a record high in 2022—but that was also, importantly, the year the team finally nailed down its own big stadium-and-housing development deal.

The 2022 New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government report showed that NYCFC and its owners City Football Group spent $385,600 on political lobbying efforts through two LLCs: CFG Stadium Group, LLC and New York City Football Club, LLC.

According to state lobbying reports dating back to 2013, that’s the highest annual lobbying spend NYCFC has registered, edging past $353,196 the team’s related LLCs spent back in 2014.

As would be expected with two mega-developments planned for the same corner of Queens, there’s a lot of overlap in the politicians who were “targets” of all the recent activity from both Steve Cohen and CFG’s lobbyists. Mayor Eric Adams and members of his administration, City Council Member and noted soccer guy Francisco Moya, members of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and in Cohen’s case, every other elected official from the borough of Queens, they’re all well-represented among recent Willets Point-adjacent lobbying records.

2023 will see NYCFC eclipse that newly-set lobbyist dollar record, as CFG Stadium Group, LLC and New York City Football Club, LLC have already reported $375,000 in costs to New York State through June.

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CFG board member Martin Edelman is paid lobbyist

Driving that increase is the hiring of new lobbying firms, plus an increase in the monthly compensation CFG is paying its longest-serving lobbyists: Geto & de Milly, Inc. and Martin Edelman, who is also a member of CFG’s board of directors.

CFG has retained Geto & de Milly since 2013, and the lobbying firm’s services now come at a cost of $25,000 per month as of July 2022, according to the firm’s history of lobbying registrations on file with New York State. That’s double the $12,000 per month the firm had long been receiving for its work trying to make a soccer stadium deal happen.

Edelman similarly earned $10,000 per month for years for his lobbying work for the team, but in 2023, he’s now taking in twice that monthly amount, $20,000, split evenly across the CFG Stadium Group, LLC and New York City Football Club, LLC, according to Edelman’s 2023 lobbying registrations on file with New York State.

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NYCFC paid Eric Adams aid to lobby for Willets Point

Lobbying became something of a lightning rod around the big November 2022 announcement of the Willets Point redevelopment that includes NYCFC’s $780 million stadium due to the background of one of the lobbyists the team began working with in 2022.

Nathan Smith of Red Horse Strategies signed a lobbying contract with CFG in July 2022. He also served as a top aide on Eric Adams’s successful 2021 campaign for New York City Mayor and lobbied City Hall for months on behalf of NYCFC’s interests, and has continued to into 2023, at a cost of $10,000 per month.

In December 2022, New York City Football Club, LLC also signed a lobbying agreement with Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates, a firm led by a lobbyist who is said to be close with New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and who was in 2021 a subject of scrutiny from a federal anti-corruption unit.

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How the game is played

Since inception back in 2013, state reporting shows that CFG Stadium Group, LLC and New York City Football Club, LLC have spent $3.275 million to lobby local elected officials and government agencies, according to state lobbying records. That’s a small price for CFG to absorb given it’s spread over nearly 10 calendar years, and also given the $16.8 billion estimated net worth of CFG’s primary owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Increased spending on lobbyists from NYCFC aligns neatly with the November consummation of their near-decade of stadium search efforts, but it also aligned with a rise in lobbying spending state-wide in 2022. It was a record-setting year, with the state’s Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government report for 2022 putting the total lobbyist spend in New York at $331.54 million, an increase of 13.2% over 2021.

NYCFC have spent years playing the New York government lobbying game and don’t appear to be slowing down now that the Willets Point stadium plans are announced.

The opposite appears true, as the team increases its spending on lobbying and brings new firms with favorable political alignments into the fold as the city’s complex, fraught land approval process still looms as a hurdle to clear.

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