Casino Fever Still Rages Unabated as Newark Seeks Gaming Site of Its Own

Lilo H. Stainton | June 11, 2015 | More Issues, Social
Before gambling comes to ‘America’s newest destination city’ -- or anywhere else besides Atlantic City -- NJ voters will have to sign off on the idea

Credit: City of Newark Press Office
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka sharing his vision for a casino in the Brick City.
More than a dozen Essex County and Newark leaders joined forces Wednesday to promote the city as the best location for a potential casino and convention center complex, emphasizing that their hometown should not be overlooked as state officials scramble to expand gambling in northern New Jersey.

Many hurdles remain before the public can place any bets in the Brick City. Voters need to approve the concept; legislators must come to an agreement on where and when to expand gambling; and, in Newark, officials still need to secure a casino operator. But those details didn’t dampen the spirits of the crowd packed under the rotunda in Newark’s City Hall, who cheered the announcement as the next obvious step in the city’s ongoing economic revival.

“Newark will not be left out,” said Mayor Ras J. Baraka, under a banner that read “Newark, America’s Newest Destination City” with an image of the skyline. “I’m going to claim it. We’re going to vote on this and get a casino right here in the city of Newark.”

“We’re going through some good times right now,” added Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, a lifelong resident, praising the economic potential of what he called the “whole package” — a casino and convention center with a five-star hotel, fine dining, and other attractions. “People are buying into what is happening here in Newark.”

Casino fever seems to have struck New Jersey, as lawmakers struggle to find new revenue to plug budget gaps and momentum builds to revise the 30-year-old law that restricted gambling to Atlantic City. Two bills have been introduced that would ask the public to approve an expansion of casino gaming; one calls for two casinos — one in northern and one in central New Jersey — and the other proposes three facilities, all in northern counties. The Legislature must act by August 3 for the question to be included on the ballot this November.

“This is the perfect location, not just for a casino, but for a convention center and hotel,” said Freeholder President Britnee Timberlake, pointing to the international airport, train lines, and highways that connect Newark to the region and world. “And to be quite honest, I don’t know why any other area would even be considered.”

The Newark announcement comes a week after elected officials from Bergen County gathered to welcome a deal with Hard Rock International to invest $1 billion in a casino at the Meadowlands Racetrack, which they said could be open as early as next summer. Venture capitalist Paul Fireman has also outlined a plan for a $4 billion casino resort on the Jersey City waterfront, near Liberty State Park.

Baraka and DiVincenzo said they have both been in touch with several potential operators — whom they declined to name — for a Newark facility and are considering at least three possible sites, including the Newark Penn Station area and land near Riverfront Stadium. They both stressed that the project would not receive city or county tax breaks. “This will be a complete restructuring of the downtown area,” Baraka said.

The mayor predicted that the project would generate some 4,000 permanent jobs, almost $8 million in local property taxes, and millions of dollars in other economic benefits. Funds would also be set aside to help Atlantic City, which has lost four of its 12 casinos in the last year.

“This is about the kind of possibilities that cannot be captured in slots and jobs,” said Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). “This will be magnetic and dynamic and grow, attracting other investment.”

“This won’t be a little ripple in the lake. These are three places that would bring a tremendous amount of economic activity,” added Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), sponsor of the bill to create three north Jersey casinos.

“It’s up to us to convince the rest of New Jersey” that expanding gambling to North Jersey makes sense, Caputo continued. “No one person should stand in the way of giving people the right to vote.”

Caputo and other north Jersey lawmakers are pushing to have this question put to voters in November, but Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) — who controls the flow of legislation — has said he prefers to wait for the larger voter turnout that will follow the presidential election in 2016. As of Wednesday evening, his position remained unchanged.

While state lawmakers will need to balance the local demands that come with the changing casino landscape, officials in Newark stressed it was not a regional battle, echoing the message delivered by Meadowlands leaders last week. The real fight, they said, is to keep gamblers from traveling to casinos out of state.

“It’s time to come together as one state and do the right thing here in north Jersey, to be able to help our neighbors in South Jersey,” DiVincenzo said. “We don’t want to lose money to Pennsylvania and New York. It’s about keeping the dollars in New Jersey.”