Gov. Chris Christie, enacting the biggest change in Atlantic City gaming since its inception in 1978, took steps Tuesday to set the city, the industry and a financially stalled casino on a new course, committing the state to involvement and investment.
Through a newly created state-run Tourism District around Atlantic City’s visitor attractions, the governor declared, his administration would take a more active hand in promoting the resort as clean, safe and economically prosperous.
He then gave the job of regulating casinos to the Division of Gaming Enforcement, an in-house division of the office of Attorney General Paula Dow. Finally, he announced that, from now on, the state would enter profit-making partnerships with private companies that seek a state sales-tax rebate of at least $50 million — the first of which is the Revel casino project in the South Inlet.
While a booming resort would bring increased state revenue, the deal means the state would receive 20 percent of Revel’s partners’ profits in an arrangement known as “success reimbursement payments.”
“The taxpayers in the state of New Jersey will participate in the success of that — and that’s a policy I have been for, for a long time,” he said.
Declaring the arrival of a “new Atlantic City,” the governor appeared at 11 a.m. at the unfinished Revel casino construction site.
Signing two bills at a table stacked with construction hard hats bearing Revel logos, he first created the Tourism District under the control of an existing state agency, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, in S-11, and then overhauled the state’s casino regulations in S-12.
Christie then made his third announcement: The Revel casino project would have its financing set and construction would resume possibly beginning by next week, with help from a $261 million state sales tax-reimbursement plan agreed to in Trenton just 15 minutes prior to the news conference.
Inside Revel’s glass and steel atrium, more than a hundred onlookers, including federal and state officials, casino executives and staff and construction union leaders packed into the half-built and unheated lobby. Union laborers, wearing hard hats and work clothes, stood on the second floor of the building shell, looking over the half-constructed guardrail, to hear the governor commit to helping the project come back to life.
To cheering, Christie said bipartisan support had gathered behind Revel’s success, noting that the troubled project is already becoming a favorable example of how to finish large-scale development in a bad economy.
“When this project stopped, that’s a real depressor,” he said, alluding to last year’s slowdown as Revel’s developers struggled to complete its financing. Opening the casino, Christie added, would be “an extremely important psychological shift for the city.”
“I would say you would be hard-pressed to look in this region at another place where over a billion dollars in private financing will be put into a project like this,” Christie said.
Taking his three actions together, the governor heralded “the transformation of the city into what in my view it always should have been — a vacation and convention center for the world.”
Gamblers who live in New York and Pennsylvania who want to do more than “sit in a room and gamble and stare at the wall” would soon give the resort a second look, he said.
Under the first bill signed, the Tourism District creates a partnership between private industry and the CRDA in charge of funding infrastructure improvements, better policing and improving the physical appearance of the resort’s most-visited areas, likely to include the Boardwalk and Marina, The Walk shopping district and Bader Field, a city-owned redevelopment area.
The exact boundaries of the district may be altered by the CRDA within the next 90 days. The CRDA will also coordinate city code and other services within the zone, and the state will coordinate police activities in the zone. And CRDA funds, derived from a 1.25 percent assessment on casino revenue, will be used exclusively in the city, he said.
“The history of CRDA sending money that was generated in Atlantic City all over the state, in my view a sad history, is over,” Christie said.
Meanwhile, leadership changes at the CRDA are likely. Christie said he already has had discussions with Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, about the issue.
Under the second bill enacted, regulatory power over the casino industry will largely transfer from the Casino Control Commission to the Division of Gaming Enforcement. The new law eliminates the requirement that state gaming inspectors be present in casinos at all times and removes rules on minimum staffing levels at casino tables.
Christie said the bill “sets up an entire re-regulation of Atlantic City’s gaming industry, to be in compliance with what the state of the art is for regulation across the country.”
Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford did not attend the news conference, an absence that drew comment from Christie and other politicians.
One lone heckler, Steven Young, stepped forward to ask the governor if he would come to explain the plan to Atlantic City residents. Young, a community activist, hosted a town hall-style meeting recently as a forum for concerns and questions about the legislation. The governor was invited, but did not attend.
“I’ve been trying to reach you for a town hall meeting,” Young said. Christie wouldn’t answer Young, insisting on only taking questions from reporters.
Christie also would not discuss the fate of a new horseracing subsidy, which he had opposed but which turned out to be a deal-breaker for northern New Jersey legislators who resisted the administration’s efforts to aid Atlantic City while cutting state funds for horseracing.
Christie, who has veto power over the New Jersey Racing Commission, would not say whether that subsidy would ever make it into racing purses.
“Today’s about Atlantic City,” he said.
Legislators of both parties praised the governor for successfully convincing both parties to get on board with his vision for the city.
But Christie made clear that the job of selling the resort as a tourism destination, with a major new marketing campaign, would be one area he wouldn’t handle.
Asked what the campaign would include, Christie said, “Here’s the first bit of good news — I won’t be doing it.”
Staff writers Michael Clark and Scott Cronick contributed to this story.
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