The fate of two casinos and 3,000 jobs depends on whether New Jersey offers Internet gambling, state Sen. Jim Whelan told business leaders and state officials Friday.
The state Senate and Assembly on Tuesday are expected to pass an Internet gambling bill, which Gov. Chris Christie has indicated he will sign.
“It really is a jobs bill,” said Whelan, D-Atlantic, who was among 200 people who attended the Southern New Jersey Development Council’s 31st annual Sound Off for South Jersey Legislative Conference at Harrah’s Resort.
Whelan, who was in talks with PokerStars around the time the company was exploring the purchase of the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, said the deal would have fallen apart without the bill.
“Atlantic Club would be closed by Easter,” he said.
While the senator said the sale of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino also was dependent on Internet gambling, Whelan later told The Press of Atlantic City that was “an educated guess.”
A representative of the California-based Meruelo Group, which has agreed to buy Trump Plaza for $20 million, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Lawyer Lloyd Levenson, who moderated a morning panel during the conference, asked participants their opinion of an ongoing war of words between Lorenzo Langford and Chris Christie. The dispute dates to when New Jersey created a Tourism District in Atlantic City over which state officials have more control and can supersede the city’s authority in certain matters, such as zoning.
In many ways, Atlantic City has benefited from the Tourism District, said Assemblymen John Amodeo and Chris Brown, both R-Atlantic, and Whelan. Christie pressed for the formation of the Atlantic City Alliance, a marketing agency, using casino money and allowed the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to focus its funding entirely on Atlantic City.
That infusion of cash arrived as the city’s gambling fortunes were trending downward due to an economic downturn and casino competition from neighboring states, Amodeo said.
“The mayor has to realize that what we have done is not to tear apart his city but to try to make up for what we lost in ’06,” Amodeo said.
Whelan, who has had his share of clashes with Langford, said he believed Langford made a mistake in not approaching the governor after the Tourism District was created to negotiate for the addition of a jobs program or other services that may have been needed by the city.
“That didn’t happen, and unfortunately the communication has been even less,” Whelan said.
Brown said he would have advised the governor, “If you get into a fight with a fool, nobody knows who the fool is.”
Langford, in a later interview with The Press, said he has been disrespected by Christie, and that he and city government have been used as scapegoats.
Last year, in answer to a question about Atlantic City’s high homicide rate, Christie said, “The mayor there has failed.” Langford responded through a letter that two of the city’s highest-profile homicides — the killings of two Canadian tourists — occurred in the tourism zone under the state’s control.
Langford said he wants to move on from these disputes and doesn’t want to address similar questions about his relationship with the governor.
“I don’t care what they say about me, I don’t care what they think about me, I’m just concentrating on what I’m doing as a mayor,” Langford said. “I especially don’t care what the governor thinks about me.”
Lawmakers at the conference also addressed a state budget proposal Christie is expected to deliver Tuesday.
The state Treasury Department reported this week that year-to-date revenue collection was about 4 percent higher than during the same period last year but still about $350 million short of projections.
Whelan said he was concerned there were other costs that would become a factor in next year’s budget, such as the state’s planned contribution of $700 million to its public pension funds.
“The overarching question is how do we deal with the shortfall,” he said.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said he would lobby to pass a budget on time and with no expense increases.
Battling perceptions about damage from Hurricane Sandy was another concern for South Jersey.
Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, said the group had recruited Miss America Mallory Hagan, of New York, to help with a radio campaign about New Jersey’s recovery efforts as part of a strategy to lure back tourists.
Other officials talked about the challenges of trying to correct media reports about the extent of the damage.
“We almost have to take five steps back to try to correct poor reporting, to try to correct sensationalism,” said Brown, adding that he believed other tourist destinations were luring visitors who would normally visit South Jersey during the summer by exaggerating damage to the region. “You are dealing with unscrupulous characters who are taking advantage of a disaster for their own benefit,” Brown said.
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