ATLANTIC CITY — Angry exchanges along regional and political lines and competing proposals marked a gaming summit led Friday by Democratic state lawmakers who hope to chart a new course for New Jersey’s casino and horse-racing industries.
As Gov. Chris Christie’s administration begins work to craft detailed proposals for state involvement in Atlantic City and to withdraw support for horse racing, 10 Democratic lawmakers organized the first day of a three-part summit to propose alternatives to the governor’s proposals.
In a sign that horse racing would dominate the summit’s discussion, lawmakers and a large public crowd were greeted by a red-coated bugler, who loudly trumpeted the “call to post” theme to signal the beginning of the session.
But panel members soon engaged in arguments over a number of issues, including growing gaming competition, the city’s image as unclean and unsafe, and racetracks’ future. As lawmakers shouted over some guest speakers, tensions throughout the day reflected the Democrats’ uneasy attempts to unite southern casino interests and northern racing proponents against the governor.
Last month, Christie called for a public-private partnership to operate and promote Atlantic City’s casino district and for ending state support of horse racing. Democratic legislators held the summit in response, hoping to generate their own proposals.
But no specific plan was proposed as legislators attacked the advisory recommendations, known as the Hanson report after its chairman, Jon Hanson. The lawmakers took competing stands on whether online gaming should be allowed and whether the Meadowlands Racetrack should be sold by the state or expanded to include slot machines, and agreed mainly in opposing the governor’s plan.
“The Hanson report is incomplete at best and misguided at worst,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, Essex, Passaic.
‘It’s about jobs’
Noisy interruptions came from the crowd, dozens of whom wore shirts that said “Save the Meadowlands.” And some members of the panel played to that crowd. When Sarlo suggested the Atlantic City Convention Center was not funded by casino reinvestment dollars, but the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, the crowd erupted in cheers.
State Sen. Jim Whelan said that wasn’t true.
“If we want to have a contest of who can clap the loudest — folks who want to support the Meadowlands or folks from Atlantic City — I’ll ask my friends in the first row to make a phone call,” said Whelan, D-Camden. “We’ll fill the room with construction workers, and they’ll hoot the North Jersey people down.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, said the summit wasn’t about geographic interests.
“It’s about jobs,” said Sweeney, the leader of the southern New Jersey Democrats.
“The Hanson report troubled me the most because there was a clear winner and loser,” he said.
Mark Juliano, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, who spoke first to the panel, expressed broad support for the content of the advisory report.
“We implore you to promptly legislate,” Juliano told the lawmakers.
He said the Casino Association has already agreed with the state to put millions toward marketing the tourism district. If casinos were no longer paying its current $30 million annual subsidy of purses at state racetracks, Juliano said, the casinos could use the money for advertising and promoting the resort.
Emphasizing the need for involvement and cooperation by many agencies and players, he said that “city government, state government and private city operators have to perform their functions more effectively.”
But Sarlo and Sweeney slammed Juliano’s defense of Christie’s proposal. They also criticized casino companies that have expanded into New Jersey’s neighboring states.
Sarlo asked Juliano whether he supported the position of Harrah’s Entertainment, which operates four casinos in Atlantic City but also contributes to the resort’s competition with a gaming hall in Chester, Pa.
“So the investment they’re making over the border, it’s not affecting us?” Sarlo said. “Doesn’t that send the wrong message?”
“Are you questioning their commitment to Atlantic City, their commitment to New Jersey?” Juliano countered. “Because I wouldn’t. Or are you trying to tell them how to run their business?”
Sweeney criticized Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment, for backing the Republican governor’s plan when one of its main contentions is that Atlantic City is unsafe and unclean. Juliano and others maintain that Atlantic City’s reputation for having high crime and blight is a “perception problem.”
“If you endorse a plan that says we’re bad, then we’re bad,” Sweeney said. “You should be disagreeing with that part of the report.”
Juliano said the industry agrees with the general idea of the report, but that there is a long way to go as stakeholders iron out the details.
Cleanliness and safety
Israel Posner, director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, also said concerns about cleanliness and safety are perception, not reality. He also cited surveys that show many visitors having a strong feeling of security when they come to the resort.
“Some of you would be shocked,” he said of the survey’s results.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, told Posner that the argument of perception will only hold back progress.
“Perception is reality,” he said. “Let’s get in the real world here. ... You should feel a police presence in those tourism areas. You should feel like it’s not kind of clean, it’s super clean.”
But plans to lay off 40 Atlantic City police officers in September in addition to the 20 already laid off by the city administration led some legislators to question how Christie’s expectation to make a cleaner, safer resort in the next year was possible.
“Where is this new police presence going to come from?” Sarlo asked.
Juliano also clarified that the industry expects government to provide police services in the casino district, rather than an operation controlled by the casinos.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford told the panel he saw a benefit, not a threat, in potential assistance from the state on police services in the governor’s proposed Tourism District.
“I think it would work in cooperation and conjunction with the Atlantic City Police Department,” he said. “It then affords us the opportunity to take the resources ... and then put them back into the neighborhoods.”
But the mayor did criticize the state, saying it has hampered the city’s efforts to collect tax revenue and maintain a balanced budget.
“What I would really like to see, with all due respect, is for the state to get their hands out of our pockets,” he said.
One example the mayor cited is the large amount of city property owned by state agencies such as the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which does not pay property taxes to the city.
He also noted that the resort does not benefit from the city’s luxury tax — a 9 percent charge on the sale of alcohol and hotel rooms and entertainment cover charges — which is controlled by the county.
Langford said after his testimony that he has made no “substantive” efforts to try restructuring the tax formula, but intends to try opening negotiations in the near future.
Next up: Meadowlands
Horse racing supporters had traveled from north and central New Jersey to hear the critical discussions about their pastime. Sixteen-year-old Taylor Ferguson wore a shirt and a sash over the top that said “Equestrian of the Year.”
“I came from East Rutherford today because we realize there’s this report that could crush our racing events and racetracks here,” Ferguson said. “And we realize many people don’t know about how many people take part in the sport, and take care of horses here.”
A second summit is expected to be held at the Meadowlands, but lawmakers said a date for that hearing has still not been set, raising the possibility that the summit won’t happen until the end of the month or September.
But Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, Passaic, stressed that discussions had to chart a new kind of vision for all the industries — a vision that may differ from Christie’s, but which has to put forward new ideas.
“It’s like those T-shirts they sell on the Boardwalk: ‘If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got,’” she said.
Issues at the summit
200-room casino hotels
State Sen. Jim Whelan said he intends to create another draft of his bill lowering the number of required hotel rooms in a casino from 500 to 200. Stakeholders in a proposed 200-room Hard Rock Casino argued that smaller-sized does not mean inadequate amenities.
Revel Entertainment Group’s CEO Kevin DeSanctis said he expects to acquire final financing for his $2.5 billion casino by the end of the year.
Gaming competition, expansion
State Sens. Paul Sarlo and Raymond Lesniak criticized the gaming giant Harrah’s Entertainment for its opposition to online gaming and its casino in Pennsylvania, accusing the company of contributing to the competition problem plaguing Atlantic City. The company said expanding gaming online faces “constraints in federal criminal laws.”
Mayor Lorenzo Langford welcomed the idea of state-led police patrols in the city’s proposed Tourism District, noting that it could provide more resources to patrolling the inner-city neighborhoods.
What they're saying
“If you endorse a plan that says we’re bad, then we’re bad.”
— Senate President Stephen Sweeney, criticizing Casino Association President Mark Juliano for his support for Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to fix Atlantic City.
“If competition is not what you’re afraid of, then (put) a world-class casino three hours from here, at the Meadowlands.”
— Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, proposing a major expansion of gaming.
“We’re not going to have this turn into a jeering session.”
— Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, rebuking noisy protesters from northern New Jersey.
“We’re 100 percent behind you.”
— Mark Juliano, expressing Casino Association support for Sen. Ray Lesniak’s fight to change federal law to allow sports betting.
“We heard nothing. Nothing new. Nothing constructive. Nothing that will move solutions forward.”
— Assemblymen Vincent Polistina and John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, who listened to the proceedings, but were not invited.
“This city should have been the Paris of the Eastern Seaboard. ... The voters should be able to have a say in something like state involvement in the resort.”
— Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, pushing for a public referendum on state control of the tourism district.
“It doesn’t bother me. It amuses me.”
— Mayor Lorenzo Langford, on hearing outsiders diagnose the problems in Atlantic City.
“If you see a piece of trash, pick it up.”
— Councilman Moisse Delgado, addressing how visitors and residents should help make the city cleaner.
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