Apparently Unsinkable, Long-Discussed Meadowlands Casino Plan Rises Once Again

But gambling in north Jersey faces long odds -- and a constitutional ballot question – before it can become a reality

Like a goose with a golden egg, a casino in the Meadowlands, supporters say, would bring jobs and income to the region, provide hundreds of millions of dollars for education and other statewide needs, and even generate a subsidy for struggling Atlantic City — without siphoning off the gamblers who help keep that shorefront mecca alive.

That’s the pitch from Jeff Gural, a real estate executive who owns the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford and is involved with two racetrack casinos in upstate New York. On Tuesday, Gural announced his partnership with the company that runs the Hard Rock gambling establishments to develop a “full-fledged casino” at the restored Meadowlands racetrack and has promised to share additional details next week.

“People tell me it is the best casino location in the country,” Gural said Wednesday of his discussion with gaming industry analysts, who suggest it could generate up to $500 million in annual tax revenue. “The location we have is so outstanding we can afford to pay (a higher state) tax rate,” he added.

While Atlantic City gaming operations now provide 8 percent of their revenue to help offset state education and other costs, Gural said the Meadowlands facility would provide 55 percent to the state — on par with the Pennsylvania rate. There would even be enough revenue to provide “up to $100 million” to help Atlantic City itself, he added.

Four of that struggling city’s 12 casinos have closed over the past year, eliminating some 8,000 jobs. Atlantic City leaders have long opposed proposals to allow gambling elsewhere for fear it would exacerbate this decline.

But Gural suggested a Meadowlands casino wouldn’t detract from Atlantic City operations, which draw much of their customer base from Philadelphia and its Jersey suburbs, Baltimore, and the Washington, D.C.-area. In fact, he said it could be a net benefit to the Garden State, enticing residents who now are going out of state. “We would take the New Jersey visitors now going to Pennsylvania and New York and bring them back to New Jersey,” he said.

However, any deal is far from done. In fact, it requires voters in a general election to approve a change to the state constitution — which currently limits gambling to Atlantic City. Before that can happen, state lawmakers must agree to put the question on the ballot. And while support in Trenton appears to be building for the concept, leaders aren’t sure it is the right time and some believe that it makes more sense to wait for the greater turnout generated by the presidential election in 2016.

“A casino in the Meadowlands makes a lot of sense and it’s an idea [regional lawmakers have] all been working toward,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “But it takes a referendum and that’s a big hurdle that we have to get over first,” she added, noting that she has yet to have an in-depth discussion with Senate leadership about the timeline.

New Jersey officials have toyed for decades with the idea of a Meadowlands casino as a way to generate new revenue for state operations and to support its beleaguered horse-racing industry, which has come to depend on stipends from Atlantic City casinos to meet its costs. The idea has traditionally been opposed by elected leaders from South Jersey, who said they worry about the impact on Atlantic City, but their stance seems to have shifted.

[related]Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said last summer that he would support such a referendum for 2015, but was recently reported to have put the deal on hold until the 2016 election cycle, which will have greater turnout. Sweeney supports the concept of gaming in North Jersey, his office said, but he has not yet decided that it belongs on the 2015 ballot.

Gural — a longtime track enthusiast who says his interest lies in creating a viable horse racing facility — said the timing is right for this deal and urged lawmakers to take action soon. “We’re kind of in the home stretch here,” he said. “The goal is to let the voters decide if they want a casino in Northern New Jersey.”

Even if lawmakers do approve the question in time to include it on November’s ballot, Gural said public support is not a given. The goal is to show voters how this facility will be much more than just “slots in a box,” but a full-fledged casino with entertainment and other elements to lure a diverse crowd. An additional attraction is the potential for high-end shopping and other activities at the American Dream facility, also under construction at the Sports Complex; a representative for Triple 5, the developer, declined to comment on Gural’s plan.

“When people get that message … I think it will narrowly pass” Gural said of the vote. “I think (the proposal is) going to be a surprise to some people.”

Regardless of the timing, Gural has a kind of built-in guarantee when it comes to operating a future Meadowlands casino. When he negotiated with the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to take control of the racetrack in 2011, he insisted that his company be given the priority when it came to any future gambling facilities on the site. Gural said his lease requires that if the state grants a casino license to another operator, that company must repay him for the investment he has made in the racetrack. Officials with the NJSEA and the Governor’s office declined to comment late Wednesday on this provision.

“Obviously there’s no way I would go ahead and spend $120 million (on the track facility) and find out that Steve Wynn was going to put up a casino next door,” Gural said, underscoring how revenues from the casino are a key part of keeping the track solvent. “You just can’t risk that.”