The head of a state Assembly committee pushing for gambling expansion in North Jersey attacked Atlantic City on Thursday, saying greedy casino executives have ruined the resort and are looking for a state bailout.
Meanwhile, two South Jersey lawmakers continued to advocate for the city, saying such public discussions continue to erode confidence in Atlantic City, which still has two years remaining under Gov. Christie Christie’s promise to block gambling expansion in support of plans to revitalize the oceanside resort.
The debate took place Thursday during a hearing of the Assembly Tourism and Gaming Committee, which vetted a bill that would create a committee to explore gambling expansion outside Atlantic City. No vote was taken as supporters of the bill argued that Christie’s plan for the city should be re-evaluated.
“We don’t want to destroy an industry. They can do that themselves,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, who chairs the committee. “(Casino executives) don’t give one damn about anything but themselves. All they did was take money from that city. Now that the market is challenged, it’s up to us to try to assist. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look at it honestly.”
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, called on the committee to be patient, saying that any study of gambling expansion uncessarily creates uncertainty for investors. He highlighted nongambling attractions added in Atlantic City in recent years as part of the governor’s push for diversification, including Margaritaville at Resorts Casino Hotel and under-construction outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops.
“Atlantic City is moving in the right direction. If we do the study now before we give the seeds of opportunity a chance to grow, it would be premature and would not be based off of the true picture of Atlantic City,” Brown said. “How can we say we are truly trying to revitalize Atlantic City when we knowingly scare off the very investors we are spending so much time, money and energy with to invest in Atlantic City’s future?”
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, criticized the bill for pitting the northern and southern portions of the state against each other.
“To go back on your word to the people of Atlantic County before the five-year waiting period ends is wrong,” Mazzeo said after the hearing. “I intend to make sure that Atlantic City gets what this Legislature promised it — the time and money needed to help restore the city to the tourism and gaming destination that it once was.”
Legislation approved in February 2011 created the state-run Tourism District, encompassing the casinos, outlets and main thoroughfares of the city. That district is overseen by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Christie has said he would wait five years from the creation of the district before he would consider asking voters to think about casino expansion.
Proposals similar to the one before the Assembly have been unsuccessfully floated in previous years. The current proposal calls for a 13-member group to evaluate Atlantic City’s position and consider casino expansion in Bergen County. The bill was approved in the Assembly last year but never made it to the Senate.
Caputo said Atlantic City’s recent struggles only highlight the need for a different approach to gambling. He pointed to the January closing of the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, which left 1,600 people out of work, and the expected sale or financial restructuring of Revel Casino-Hotel, a project the state has heavily supported.
“We cannot bury our heads in the sand and say everything will be fine,” Caputo said. “Atlantic City is not going to be fine. It’s not going to come back to its original form.”
Staff Writer Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this article.
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