As Gov. Chris Christie arrives in Atlantic City this morning to take action on legislation to remake the resort, political observers say he has spent some of his political capital to try to make Atlantic City's future brighter.
Christie plans today to sign two bills that grew out of his trip to Atlantic City in July. In a news conference on the Boardwalk, he championed the only gaming resort in the state and said he would change state policy to improve perceptions of the resort and its business climate.
Political observers said Christie's months-long advocacy for Atlantic City has been unprecedented among the state's leaders. Most governors haven't had to throw their support behind the resort for the simple reason that casinos did well for many years.
"For years, most governors would stand on the sidelines, cheering the casino industry here and saying, ‘Just keep doing what you're doing,'" said Carl Golden, former press secretary to Republican Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman. "Throughout the last 30 years, casinos have been largely immune from economic upticks and downticks. They have had close to 50,000 employees here, and had been doing great."
Not so in recent times. Casino revenue has declined for four straight years.
"Perhaps Christie hasn't gotten quite the credit he deserves yet for recognizing that someone needed to step in and take on that situation," Golden said.
As Christie prepares to enact the two laws - one creates a Tourism District covering most of Atlantic City's visitor attractions and the other radically overhauls state casino regulation - one local official said Christie's action today is a revival of a policy once touted by Democratic former Gov. Brendan Byrne.
"Byrne talked about having a super-agency in charge in Atlantic City," said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.
When Christie proposed his ambitious plan in July, he took the advice of Jon Hanson, a former head of the Sports and Exposition Authority, who called for a public-private partnership between state, city and private industry to oversee a quick and visible turnaround in the resort's image.
Christie will sign a bill that looks a little different from what Hanson suggested, with an existing agency, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, in charge of a newly created Tourism District.
But, Whelan said, "When you think back to the suggestion of a super-agency, that's what the CRDA will now be."
Whelan credited Christie for the outcome.
"This sends a very strong message," he said.
Israel Posner, director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, agreed that the governor's support is vital.
"You cannot overestimate the effect of having a governor stand up for the industry," he said. "What he's saying loudly and clearly is that the state of New Jersey has a stake in the future of Atlantic City. That has practical implications in the short term by bringing energy and optimism into the marketplace."
Golden noted that Christie was likely to let stand a controversial provision in the bill providing a new subsidy from CRDA revenue to fund horse racing purses, worth $30 million over three years.
"That has angered some people," he said, adding that Christie has repeatedly said he opposes state and taxpayer subsidies for the horse-racing industry.
"But think how many northern legislators were pushing for VLTs up north," Golden said. "You realize that he stood firm on that. And in the balance, I think on that score he comes out ahead."
Rich Lee, spokesman for the Hall Institute of Public Policy in New Jersey, said Christie has used his political capital to create a new state policy on horse racing.
"I think this was one of those rare instances where the political process actually worked," Lee said. "But he's softened his tone as he goes along." The governor managed to get horsemen's groups to seriously consider ways to run the sport privately, he said. "We end up with a raft of bills aimed at developing the racing industry, and (in the) meantime, Christie has gradually sounded more and more supportive of the sport."
Contact Juliet Fletcher: