ATLANTIC CITY — The developer of a proposed North Jersey casino predicted Thursday it would be an economic powerhouse for the entire state, but Atlantic City supporters fear the project would cannibalize an already struggling gambling market.
Jeff Gural, who wants to convert the Meadowlands Racetrack into the first New Jersey casino outside Atlantic City, said his project would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue each year, with much of that money going to Atlantic City to help rebuild the resort.
"My objective is not to destroy Atlantic City in any way," Gural said during a panel discussion at the East Coast Gaming Congress focusing on North Jersey casinos.
However, South Jersey lawmakers on the panel argued that a new casino at the Meadowlands or anywhere else in North Jersey would "devastate Atlantic City."
"All you're going to do is cannibalize the market you have," said Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, also said they are adamantly opposed to expanding casino gambling to North Jersey.
"We should invest in Atlantic City, not divest, because that's what would happen if we have casinos in North Jersey," Mazzeo said.
Van Drew added, "I do not believe in having a North Jersey casino — period."
The controversial topic has pitted North Jersey lawmakers against pro-Atlantic City forces for years. The issue jumped to the political forefront Wednesday when Gov. Chris Christie said he was willing to let New Jersey residents vote on North Jersey casinos in a ballot referendum.
Gural seems ready to seize the opportunity. He has teamed up with casino and entertainment giant Hard Rock International to transform the Meadowlands in Bergen County into a racetrack casino. Designs for the project are scheduled to be unveiled at a press conference next Wednesday.
Gural predicted the Meadowlands casino could pull in $1 billion a year in gaming revenue, a figure that would vault it to the top of New Jersey's gambling market. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City's dominant property, had $687.3 million in total gaming revenue in 2014.
Hoping to make his project more palatable to Atlantic City supporters, Gural said he is in favor of having tax revenue generated by the Meadowlands casino help revitalize the resort. He estimated the Meadowlands casino could produce $500 million in annual tax revenue, with $200 million going to Atlantic City.
"The last thing I want to do is hurt Atlantic City," Gural said. "I'm not here to do any harm to Atlantic City."
New Jersey voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to allow casinos in North Jersey; casinos are currently limited to Atlantic City. As a first step, the state Legislature would have to approve legislation putting a referendum on the ballot.
"All I'm saying is, let the voter decide," Gural said.
Jim Allen, chief executive officer of Hard Rock, said advance polling shows that voters would be more inclined to support North Jersey casinos if financial aid to revive Atlantic City was part of the package.
Allen bluntly said that Atlantic City needs to overhaul its image, as well as its aging infrastructure, if it ever hopes to revitalize its economy. He characterized the blighted and crime-ridden parts of the city as a "little scary" for visitors.
"We have to fix the image," Allen said.
Allen argued that a Meadowlands casino would concentrate on tapping daytrippers from the New York metropolitan market, while Atlantic City could be transformed into a destination resort for overnight trips.
Atlantic City gaming executives, though, believe that a Meadowlands casino would steal their business, further jeopardizing a market that saw the Atlantic Club, Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza casinos close last year.
"We're going to lose a lot of those customers," said Mark Giannantonio, president and CEO of Resorts Casino Hotel.
Giannantonio maintained it is "surreal" that North Jersey casinos are even being considered, while Atlantic City continues to struggle. He predicted that North Jersey casinos could put two or three more Atlantic City casinos out of business.
Tom Pohlman, general manager of the Golden Nugget Atlantic City casino hotel, also voiced opposition to a Meadowlands casino. He questioned whether casino gambling in North Jersey would produce any statewide benefits for New Jersey residents, such as lower property taxes.
In addition to the Meadowlands, Jersey City has been mentioned as a possible site for a North Jersey casino. Venture capitalist Paul Fireman has proposed building a $4.6 billion megaresort in Jersey City. The project would include a casino, a racetrack, the world's biggest Ferris wheel and a 95-story skyscraper overlooking Manhattan from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
Casinos in North Jersey would add to an already crowded gaming market in the Northeast. Older casino states such as New Jersey and Delaware have been hurt by newcomers Pennsylvania and Maryland. Massachusetts will open its first casino in June.
By the end of the year, there will be 60 casinos in the Northeast, according to Spectrum Gaming Group, a Linwood-based consulting firm that serves as one of the primary organizers of the East Coast Gaming Congress.
Existing casino operators contend that the market is already saturated. Fearing the extra competition, they are hoping the explosion of casino gambling dramatically slows down.
"There's a finite amount of gaming revenue out there," said Wendy Hamilton, general manager of the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia. "We are in a very volatile time and we're in a frenzy of gaming expansion. It needs to stop."
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