If history is any indication, the defeat of a November ballot question on North Jersey casinos would not end the fight to expand gaming beyond Atlantic City.
Low poll numbers and a pro-North Jersey casino group dropping its marketing campaign last week suggest Atlantic City will retain its state monopoly on gambling for at least two years, the next time a referendum could resurface.
That’s what happened more than 40 years ago, when a 1974 referendum, which lacked specifics about where New Jersey casinos would be located, failed. That paved the way for the approved 1976 public vote, which designated Atlantic City as the lone spot for gaming halls.
This time, however, a vote to allow casinos in North Jersey would simply continue the proliferation of legalized gambling on the East Coast, where casinos have popped up in surrounding states, siphoning business from Atlantic City’s market — and each other.
So a vote for even more casinos is a harder sell, said Robert Ambrose, an instructor at the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management at Drexel University.
“With the proliferation of so many regional gaming houses within a two-hour ride from A.C., this competitive market is not the same as it was in ’76.” Ambrose said. “The casino sell in New Jersey is harder this time, as the market dynamics have changed and not everyone wants one in their town. A lot of promises were made during the campaign in 1976 to legalize casino gambling. Some were delivered and some were lost, like playing cards in a dealer’s shuffle.”
Opponents and even some supporters of the current referendum said there aren’t enough details, such as exact locations for the new casinos and the tax rates they would pay.
“If you look at it, it’s very similar,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who was Atlantic City’s mayor from 1990 to 2001. “The 1974 referendum lacked details, while the 1976 plan had all of the details. I hope it’s dead for, not just this year, but the near future. But you never know.”
Voters will decide whether to approve as many as two casinos in North Jersey during the Nov. 8 election. The ballot question states the new casinos must be in separate counties and at least 72 miles from Atlantic City, where four casinos closed in 2014 and another, Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, is set to close Oct. 10.
Jeff Gural, operator of the Meadowlands Racetrack, has said he is still committed to building a casino at the site and hopes that measure could come back in 2018, if it’s defeated this year. Gural looked to partner with Hard Rock International to build a 650,000-square-foot property that featured 200 gambling tables and 5,000 slot machines at the site.
Deutsche Bank said last year North Jersey casinos could generate $500 million in gambling revenue.
“The public question on the 1976 ballot, unlike its predecessor, limited casinos to Atlantic City,” said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group. “It also specified that the tax revenue raised through casino gambling would be used to finance new programs for senior citizens.”
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, expects the issue to come up again in two years. With the fight against expanding gambling, “we’ve proven North Jersey casinos are not inevitable,” he said.
A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll found only 40 percent of voters supported expanding casino gaming in the state.
Ambrose said there is irony in that number, too.
“Ironically, the latest polls are showing similar numbers to the defeated 1974 first referendum to establish casinos statewide. That vote failed 60 percent to 40 percent,” he said.