Armed with a massive war chest from his late father—the pugnacious billionaire Sheldon Solow—Stefan Soloviev is vying to carve his own name into the brutal business of New York City real estate.
This week, Soloviev, 47, publicly touted what is perhaps his most audacious gambit: a proposal to nab one of three forthcoming casino licenses in New York, with a bid that features a ferris wheel, hotel, and four-acre park.
The planned site, near the United Nations on the east side of Manhattan, “is the best location that anyone in Manhattan has by far,” Soloviev told The Daily Beast, swaggering the way developers do.
Rounding out the pitch, which could secure him a hugely lucrative stream of gambling revenue, is an enticement for socially minded New Yorkers: a so-called “democracy museum” that will display segments of the Berlin Wall. The museum would be “dedicated solely to the promotion of freedom of press, human rights, civil rights, [and] justice,” explained Soloviev Group CEO Michael Hershman, speaking by phone from the sometimes repressive nation of Qatar, where he was attending the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The New York State Gaming Commission wouldn’t comment on Soloviev’s proposal. One member of the state’s Gaming Facility Location Board, Vicki Been, told The Daily Beast that applications have not officially opened, meaning that at this point, Soloviev and his competitors are mainly vying for public attention.
Proposals from other parties, including in Times Square, Coney Island, and billionaire Stephen Ross’ Hudson Yards, are also on the table, with others surely to come. Bloomberg previously reported on the existence of Soloviev’s pitch.
Marc Edelman, an expert in gaming law at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, said the state’s decision may simply hinge on which sites will generate the most tax revenue. He also expressed doubt that neighborhoods near the U.N. could handle a massive influx of crowds.
“One could reasonably question whether placing a casino in any part of Manhattan other than perhaps Times Square would be creating more chaos and harm to the community than benefit,” he said.
John Wolohan, professor of sports law at Syracuse University, was slightly more optimistic. While he called Manhattan a “hard pitch,” owing in part to high land costs, he noted that a casino “could be seen as a golden opportunity to bring more people to the city” in the wake of the pandemic.
Soloviev inherited his dad’s affinity for making money and closing deals. “I’ve traded commodities since I was a kid,” he said. “I started with currency, moved into metals, and eventually found my way into grains.” Later, he traveled to Wichita, Kansas, to buy grain during the summer, which he held until winter, when prices were higher.
At age 17, Soloviev started working with his dad, at first simply parking cars. He enrolled at the University of Rhode Island in the early 1990s before moving closer to home “to try to play college football at St. John’s.” While there, Soloviev joined the family business full-time.
The family reunion proved short-lived. Soloviev and his father had “a falling out,” he recalled. Soloviev doubled down on his agriculture play, buying huge swaths of land for as little as $250 per acre in Kansas, and eventually in New Mexico, Colorado, and elsewhere. (In 2018, Land Report listed him as the 33rd-biggest farmland owner in America, with more than 325,000 acres.)
It’s easy to imagine why the father and son clashed. Solow was infamously combative. Once, he went to war against a former friend who had repaid a $7 million loan faster than expected, which meant fewer years of interest payments for the businessman. Solow took the matter to court. If that weren’t enough, he reportedly tried to humiliate his old pal by printing ads related to the friend’s bankruptcy in both The New York Times and New York Post.
A judge described Solow’s conduct at the time as “tacky, shabby, base, low, malicious, petty, nasty, unsavory,” according to The Times. The billionaire lost the battle.
Solow—who at his peak, in 2019, was worth $5.2 billion—was “a tough cookie,” acknowledged Hershman, who has known the family for decades. That was true both in personal and business matters. When a tenant would approach Solow to ask for something, Hershman said, “the first answer you’d get is ‘no.’”
But over time, Soloviev managed to patch things up with his dad, and he returned to the real estate dynasty. His father kept a tight grip on the crown jewel of his portfolio, the Solow Building on West 57th Street, while Soloviev managed the residential assets.
After Solow’s death, the Soloviev Group remained a family affair. Stefan chairs the board, while his sons Quintin and Hayden serve as executive vice chairman and vice chairman, respectively.
Even from his base in New York, Soloviev hasn’t given up his pastoral dreams. He travels west roughly every three weeks to work on Crossroads Agriculture, the farming company he founded in 1999 and is building into an agriculture giant that plants, transports, and sells its own crops.
In the short term, however, the casino pitch is likely to garner more attention. At the moment, the Soloviev Group has approval only for a more conventional construction plan on the site: a 1.2 million square-foot commercial building and three residential towers, Soloviev said.
Speaking to The Daily Beast, he downplayed that proposal as just “more buildings.” The real opportunity, he continued, lies with the vast entertainment complex. Soloviev said he couldn’t forecast how much revenue the casino would bring in, though Hershman claimed the project would create over 2,000 jobs and generate at least $100 million in new taxes for the city.
It’s a big play, one that could help Soloviev cement a distinct public identity, which would be helpful now that he’s attracted some of the same negative attention that shadowed his father. In December, Soloviev and his teenage son lost what appeared to be a frivolous lawsuit they filed after the son was allegedly bullied on a school trip. (The suit is under appeal.)
Soon after, in January, Insider published a long exposé depicting Soloviev as “erratic and hot-tempered,” featuring the memorable anecdote of a nanny descending a laundry chute to avoid his wrath. (“I’m successful at everything that I do,” Soloviev told the outlet, referring to both his personal and professional lives. “And if I wasn’t, I would change.”)
Hershman complimented his boss, describing Soloviev as far more philanthropic than Solow and praising his softer touch with tenants. In April, he noted, the Soloviev Foundation announced a $1 million donation to aid Ukrainians impacted by the war.
For his part, Soloviev insisted to The Daily Beast that he has nothing left to prove, no need to distinguish himself from his dad.
“For eight years, I did not take a cent from him,” he said. “‘I established my own legacy.”