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Casino Expansion Proposal Riding On North-South Political Deal

Moreover, the 107,500-seat racetrack and the giant Ferris wheel would provide the spectacular nongaming attractions that Atlantic City dreams of adding as tourist draws -- all within 50 miles of a population of 16 million people.

From the standpoint of New Jersey’s economy and tax revenues, the Jersey City megacasino development project -- coupled with a casino at the Meadowlands accessible to Giants-Jets stadium, the Meadowlands racetrack, and the American Dream megamall that is once again underway -- is a clear winner, Lesniak and other proponents argue.

However, South Jersey has wielded considerable political power during Christie’s four-and-a-half years as governor, and that’s not going to change when it comes to how casino gambling in North Jersey affects Atlantic City -- not when Sweeney, as Senate president, has unilateral power over whether bills get posted for a vote.

Sweeney and South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross have wielded the balance of power in concert with Christie on everything from the controversial pension and benefits legislation to interest arbitration limits, tenure reform, the merger of the state’s medical schools into Rutgers University, the development of a county police force to patrol Camden, and the creation of expansion of charter and renaissance schools.

Atlantic City’s casinos affect the entire South Jersey economy, Sweeney said, noting that 1,700 residents of his home county of Gloucester commute the width of the state to jobs in the casino industry.

“When the casino industry sheds jobs, it affects everybody down here,” Sweeney said, noting that the casino industry once employed 48,000 people. If Revel and Trump Plaza are unable to find buyers and join Showboat in closing their doors by September, Atlantic City’s casinos will employ fewer than 23,000 workers.

“Atlantic City started out as a resort, then it became a city with gambling, and now it has to become a resort again with casinos as just one of its attractions,” Sweeney said. “We have to go ‘Back to the Future,’ like Las Vegas did in the 1990s when it started to diversify with non-gaming attractions.”

That will require more money than Atlantic City’s struggling casinos can provide – with the new Jersey City and Meadowlands facilities the logical source to kick in more than the $100 million a year for 10 years that the Lesniak-Sarlo legislation has proposed.

“It would only be fair,” Sweeney said, noting that 10s of millions of dollars of Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) funds generated from casino revenues that were originally limited to projects in Atlantic City ended up going to projects all over the state.

If Christie and the Legislature have a year to put together the proposed constitutional amendment, the list of potential sites outside Atlantic City could expand from the two envisioned in Jersey City and the Meadowlands, said one legislator who asked not to be identified.

“If the point is to maximize revenues -- both for the state and to take care of Atlantic City -- you could end up with a referendum limiting casino expansion to five casinos, for example, rather than two,” the legislator said.

“Maybe Norcross wants one in Camden to help that city’s redevelopment and compete directly with the Philadelphia-area casinos, and maybe we want one up in Vernon by Great Gorge to keep residents of the northwestern counties from going to the Poconos. You could even have one in Middlesex. You only want to go through the constitutional amendment process once,” the legislator said.

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