NEWARK - Casino gambling should remain restricted to Atlantic City and likely won't be allowed at the Meadowlands anytime soon, the head of Gov. Chris Christie's commission on casinos and racetracks said Thursday.
Jon Hanson told a forum on the future of the gambling industry in New Jersey that the state is focused on healing the ailing casino industry while trying to make horse racing self-sufficient. Those were the central recommendations of a report his commission issued last July.
Hanson reiterated that stance at the forum at Rutgers University, where many supporters of slot machines in the Meadowlands were heavily represented.
"About four years ago, you had 50,000 people working in the gaming industry in Atlantic City," Hanson said. "It's down to 33,000 people. Our conclusion was, ‘Let's see if there's a way that you can revitalize gaming in Atlantic City.' The problem in the casino industry is acute. We're dealing with it."
The Legislature isn't likely to approve casino gambling anywhere outside Atlantic City, Hanson said. The state is trying to help the nation's second-largest gambling market by establishing a tourism district to ensure the casino district is clean and safe, he said.
James Simpson, president of Hanover Shoe Farms, the world's largest breeder of Standardbred horses, said Pennsylvania's horse industry was in dire straits before it was allowed to offer slot machines.
"Before slots, the thoroughbred and Standardbreds were on life support," he said. "We all needed the slots. I really don't see a big difference between our situation six years ago and New Jersey's situation today.
"I don't see why there's so much pushback to joining the casino and horse racing industries in New Jersey," he said. "Racing and casinos can work together. You just have to look across the border, and there's a model that's working."
He said slot machines at racetracks narrowly passed the Pennsylvania Legislature. Just four years later, Pennsylvania's 10 casinos are poised to overtake Atlantic City's 11 casinos to become the nation's second-largest gambling market after Las Vegas.
"Slots passed in the Legislature by one vote at 2:30 in the morning," Simpson said. "I think most of those legislators are happy now."
Jeffrey Gural, chairman of American Racing and Entertainment LLC, which owns the Tioga Downs racino in Nichols, N.Y., and the Vernon Downs racino outside Syracuse, N.Y., hopes to take over racing operations at the Meadowlands. He said he should know within two weeks "whether we have a deal, or whether we walk away."
He made the offer in December when Christie was about to close the Meadowlands track. The governor gave Gural 90 days to come up with a plan to take over operations there without any subsidies from government or the casinos, which had been ponying up $30 million a year to the horsemen in return for the state keeping slots out of the racetracks.
His plan involves building a new, smaller grandstand at the site.
Gural said slots are an integral part of his New York operations.
"We see an instant spike in slot revenue when the racing ends," he said. "The racing customer will come into the casino. We use the racing to market the casino. It's been successful. Here in New Jersey we're competing with tracks that are being subsidized by slots."
Christopher Woronka, a casino analyst for Deutsche Bank, called Internet gambling "absolutely a huge opportunity."
Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have made New Jersey the first state in the nation to offer online gambling. He said he had doubts about its legality.
"It's kind of off the table in New Jersey right now, but it'll be back at some point," Woronka said. "We can't lose the opportunity. The money right now is going straight to these offshore companies. That's got to change."