With a "Margaritaville Coming Soon" billboard unveiled, Gov. Chris Christie talks about the change Tuesday at Resorts.

Danny Drake

Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney may have reaffirmed their support for limiting New Jersey casinos to Atlantic City on Tuesday, but that likely will change in two years when gambling competition grows more fierce, the operator of the Meadowlands Racetrack said.

“I agree with the governor that we should wait to see how Atlantic City does,” Meadowlands operator Jeff Gural said in an interview after Christie, a Republican, and Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland, Salem, made their remarks during a news conference on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. “Where I disagree with him is that I don’t think it will take more than two years to figure out whether that’s working or not. I don’t think it’s fair to the taxpayers to wait five years.”

Christie and Sweeney — who were together in Atlantic City to announce the addition of a Margaritaville theme attraction at Resorts Casino Hotel — said they do not support adding casino gambling to the Meadowlands Racetrack for at least several more years despite a state Assembly hearing held last week on such a possibility.

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The governor said he stands behind his original statement, which was that following the gambling and tourism reforms enacted last year, Atlantic City needs “at least five years of clear sailing” to improve its profitability and rebound from a revenue slump in the face of gambling competition from casinos that recently opened in Pennsylvania and New York.

“I’m not going back on my promise and I won’t,” Christie said. “The guy to my left (Sweeney) is the other insurance. I can guarantee you that there is no way that if anybody in the Assembly or any place else puts some bill up to have gambling in any place other than Atlantic City, that it will go to die in the state Senate. Between the two of us, Atlantic City is going to have exclusivity.”

Sweeney, who was given the task of introducing Buffett during the press conference, nodded in agreement with the governor.

“It’s not time to give up on it,” Sweeney said. “Now is the time to build on it.”

Pennsylvania recently surpassed New Jersey as No. 2 in the country behind Nevada in gambling revenue. The state also collects much more taxes — 55 percent on slot revenue and 16 percent on table revenue — compared to New Jersey’s flat 8 percent tax.

But while Pennsylvania has only 8,000 people directly employed in the casinos, New Jersey has 38,000, Sweeney said.

“That’s why you can’t give up on this,” he said of the jobs.

Atlantic City also accounted for one-third of all tourism dollars generated in New Jersey, according to Christie. In addition, casinos have made $2.6 billion in capital investments in Atlantic City this year, including the $2.4 billion Revel project and renovations at other casinos.

Gural said he agreed with Christie’s approach to Atlantic City, except that he didn’t believe the state could afford to wait more than two years, particularly because casinos in Pennsylvania and New York already have drawn New Jersey residents who find it more convenient to gamble there.

New York also has added video lottery terminals at racetracks and is on the cusp of amending the state constitution to allow casino gambling through a referendum.

In two years, Atlantic City may succeed in marketing itself as a resort, but it won’t be able to stop the many state residents who want to gamble closer to home rather than trek south, Gural said.

“Why would the state of New Jersey allow all the people in northern New Jersey to gamble in another state?” he asked.

Gural said while the Meadowlands cannot survive long term without casino gambling, it can make do for another five years. He said when he took over operations at the Meadowlands, he agreed to the governor’s terms, which included no slot machines or other casino gambling.

“I wasn’t promised anything and that’s why I’m not complaining,” Gural said.

But in two years, New Jersey likely will have no choice but to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City, Gural said, particularly because the Meadowlands would be willing to pay a 50 percent tax on casino revenue, worth about $350 million annually. Even waiting three years would equate to losing more than $1 billion in taxes, Gural said.

“By 2014, we’ll know whether Atlantic City has turned a corner or not and I think that is fair,” Gural said, adding he was not disappointed at the governor’s stance for the moment. “I’m not really disappointed. If you want to call me November 2014 and ask if I’m disappointed, my answer will be different if they are still sticking to that point.”

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