Some South Jersey lawmakers are questioning the timing of an Assembly committee hearing scheduled for today to at the Meadowlands racetrack.
The meeting is undermining the strides casinos and tourism officials have made in transforming Atlantic City into a more desirable resort, particularly because it comes only a week after recently released figures show little growth in gambling revenue, local legislators said.
Horse racing officials and others are expected to speak at the hearing in support of bringing gambling to the Meadowlands.
“We don’t need an obstacle in the middle of this,” Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said Tuesday. “Why would we disrupt all of this?”
The Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee, of which Amodeo is a member, is holding the noon hearing in the Hambletonian Room at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford.
“Ignoring the fact the out-of-state competition exists is foolhardy,” Assemblyman Ruben J. Ramos Jr., D-Hudson, the chairman of the committee, said in a statement announcing the hearing last week. “Expanding gaming options to the Meadowlands could strengthen New Jersey against the competition that has already lured customers away.”
Ramos could not be reached for comment.
Amodeo said he was not happy about having to attend the meeting.
“I’m pro-Atlantic City,” Amodeo said. “It’s extremely uncomfortable. They’re throwing me in the wolf’s den and I’m the lone ranger.”
No specific bill will be discussed, although fellow Assembly committee member Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, has sponsored a bill to modify the state Constitution to allow for casinos in Bergen County.
Although New Jersey limits casino gambling to Atlantic City, some lawmakers perennially have tried to expand the activity north, particularly in recent years as casino operations in New York and Pennsylvania have flourished while Atlantic City’s gambling revenue generally has declined.
Atlantic City might appear to be vulnerable to those who argue the state would benefit from expanding casino gambling, but legislators said strong bipartisan support existed for giving the resort another four or so years to improve its profitability before they would entertain such a discussion.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie has opposed expanding gambling beyond Atlantic City for at least five years, pledging to invest the state’s resources into revitalizing the area as part of his “Jersey Comeback” campaign. Democratic legislative leaders also said they were committed to Atlantic City’s recovery, saying this recent attempt to expand casino gambling would likely lead nowhere.
“I don’t think it has legs right now nor should it have legs right now,” Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said. “I don’t know how many times and how many ways we have to say that we’ve got to give Atlantic City a chance here. We’ve got to give it a shot. We’ve got to give South Jersey a chance.”
Van Drew said the state has invested too much in Atlantic City to threaten its viability.
“We have invested a great deal of time and capital in this city, and now we have to let it grow,” he said. “It’s counterproductive to have this meeting right now. I disagree with it.”
In the past, while a portion of casino revenue was diverted to the racetracks, for at least the next five years, $30 million in casino revenue will go toward funding the budget of the Atlantic City Alliance, a marketing nonprofit organization tasked with improving the resort’s image through campaigns such as “Do AC” and the permanent installation of a 3-D light show at Boardwalk Hall.
Those efforts are starting to pay off in marketing Atlantic City as a resort destination, which are seen in improving gross operating profit — 17 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period last year — although not necessarily reflected in flat monthly gambling revenue figures — a 0.6 percent drop in June compared with the same month last year.
Amodeo said in light of the state’s investment, and other projects to revitalize Atlantic City, the state was “moving in the right direction” and should not risk trying to draw away from those efforts — at least for the next few years.
“Another four years and then we can look at things,” he said.
Contact Hoa Nguyen: