Casino Gambling in North Jersey by Next Summer? Place Your Bets

Lilo H. Stainton | June 4, 2015 | More Issues, Social
Gaming could bring jobs, visitors, and cash to the region, but voters first have to say ‘yes’ to gambling outside of Atlantic City

Prominent local legislators, business leaders, and union officials -- and a handful of Hard Rock electric guitars -- take the stage at the Meadowlands Victory Cafe to boost casino gambling in North Jersey.
Representatives of Hard Rock International and the Meadowlands Racetrack teamed up Wednesday to announce plans to invest $1 billion in a casino facility at the Sports Complex, complete with high-end features that will rival sites in Asia and Abu Dubai and could draw millions of new visitors — and revenue — to the region starting next summer.

“We see an awful lot of New Jersey license plates at casinos in Pennsylvania and New York,” said Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, flanked onstage at the racetrack’s Victory Nightclub by a dozen prominent local legislators, business leaders and union officials, and a handful of Hard Rock electric guitars. “We would love for those people to stay in state.”

The Hard Rock project, however, is hardly the only one in the planning stages. There is talk of allowing casinos in Jersey City and in Newark, or possibly other towns. The biggest question is whether voters will support casinos outside of Atlantic City. The state’s constitution now limits gambling to that resort town, and expanding it to the Meadowlands, or anywhere else, requires public-ballot approval.

Complicating matters at the moment is whether legislators can agree on a plan for a ballot question this November. State legislators must decide how to frame that question — how many casinos and where they would be located, for example, and how the tax money would be spent. These discussions are still evolving with some key legislators, including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who wants to wait until 2016.

But on Wednesday, supporters hailed the proposal as a way to generate desperately needed tax income, thousands of jobs, and economic benefits that could ripple through the entire state — and underscored the urgency to act now, before other casinos are developed nearby.

“The Meadowlands is the place for a casino in northern New Jersey,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), “and we are here to make sure this becomes a reality — not just another dream in the Meadowlands.”

“It must happen now. We can’t wait for others to take the opportunity away,” added Jim Tedesco, Bergen County executive.

Allen and Jeff Gural, Meadowlands Racetrack chairman, stressed that their proposal would not take away from the remaining Atlantic City market, a concern traditionally raised by South Jersey officials. The demographics of north Jersey, the transportation features and the allure of nearby New York City — with a Hard Rock restaurant in Times Square that can be used as a ‘marketing tool’ — will attract both locals and international visitors and could generate as much as $500 million in tax revenue annually, they said.

Of this windfall, Allen and Gural pledged to provide hundreds of millions to help Atlantic City; the historic gambling mecca has lost four of its 12 casinos in the past year. Gural promised some of the funds could go to help the horseracing industry — his passion — and lawmakers have also suggested the new revenue could help fund senior programs, healthcare initiatives, and even crumbling roads and bridges.

But major legal and logistical hurdles remain before the state can grant a new casino license, let alone collect any cash.

“We will work out those details,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), noting that he preferred two casinos to three, but could understand the desire to add more. (Weinberg favors a single site, in the Meadowlands, and several Assembly Democrats have sponsored a resolution that would allow for up to three north Jersey locations.)

“All legislators should want one in their backyard, but you need a real proposal with real capital and an international brand,” Sarlo continued, pointing to the Hard Rock proposal. “We will get there as a group … But we can’t wait two years.”

The lawmakers’ comments were a clear signal to Sweeney to put the issue to voters this November. Sweeney has maintained his preference for a referendum in 2016, when the presidential election will create bigger turnout. A small turnout might make it easier for the opposition to mount a competitive campaign. He did not respond to their suggestions on Wednesday, but other leaders said the conversation is continuing.

“My colleagues and I are going to push hard in the next few days,” said Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union). “There’s no other way out of this. If we wait another year, we’re going to get another failure. This is a matter of survival for the state. If we don’t adapt, we are going to become extinct.”

Gural said he is also ready to do his part, spending up to $20 million to convince the public to support casino-gaming expansion this November. He said voters need to know the scale of the proposal: 200 gaming tables, 5,000 slot machines, 10 restaurants, four bars, the New Jersey Music Hall of Fame, and other bells and whistles associated with the international Hard Rock brand. Renderings of the facility, which would grow from the recently renovated racetrack stadium, show gold domes and marble floors, giant LED screens and projected images, and fireworks over the parking lot with the Manhattan skyline in the distance.

“Nobody wants it to go on the ballot and be defeated,” Gural said, “But I think when we get the message out everything will turn around. Hopefully we can convince the Senate president it won’t fail.”

[related]While Gural is open to other casinos being launched in North Jersey in the years to come, he and Allen said the Hard Rock plan has the strongest backing and is ready to go now. “We have the ability to be the first to market,” Allen said. “We could be up and operating by sometime next summer or early next fall. And we know for a fact no other company can do that.”

For Jim Kirkos, president of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, the need and urgency are clear. Kirkos predicts the casino could draw as many as 25 million people to the region, “putting heads in beds” at local hotels and creating a financial impact “far beyond the Meadowlands.”

“I don’t understand why we would wait another year or two to make this happen. New Jersey has a revenue problem right now,” Kirkos said. “Casino gaming is not the panacea, but it is a tool in the box. And that toolbox needs to be opened right now.”