Matthew Levinson has stepped in as the new chairman of the Casino Control Commission at one of the most difficult times for Atlantic City’s casino industry. However, the lifelong Atlantic County resident believes that wide-ranging efforts to revive the city are starting to pay off.
Q: Atlantic City’s casino industry is in the middle of a six-year revenue slump. What can you do, as the new chairman of the Casino Control Commission, to help revitalize the industry without compromising the commission’s traditional role as a casino regulator?
A: Well, first of all, we want to make sure we don’t do anything to downgrade the integrity of what we are here to do and to regulate the casinos. But there are other things we can do that deal with streamlining the process for the users, helping with the research that we do and really just making this casino commission user-friendly when they have to come in to see the commission.
Q: Can you elaborate on some of the specific programs that you and the commission want to undertake to help the casino industry pull out of the slump?
A: Well, working with the team that the governor put in place — the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority with John Palmieri, the Atlantic City Alliance with Liza Cartmell, Tom Gilbert with the task force and director (David) Rebuck with the Division of Gaming Enforcement — really pulls these forces together to really help accomplish the goals that we have to revitalize Atlantic City.
Q: Gov. Chris Christie’s deregulation of the casino industry within the past year dramatically cut the size of the commission and its powers. Now, the commission focuses primarily on approving casino licenses, a far cry from its former broad duties as the casino industry’s principal regulatory agency. How will the commission stay relevant in years to come at less than half of its former size and with just a fraction of its former power?
A: Well, it’s no secret that the Division of Gaming Enforcement has taken a bigger role in the regulatory process and the day-to-day operation of the casino industry. But the Casino Control Commission is still a vital part of the casino industry. Not only do we look at the casino licenses, but we also deal with the key employees and the qualifiers of casino licenses, we research the legislation for the Governor’s Office on other jurisdictions, and we also audit and we collect the fees for the parking revenue, which is not a small task. It is a $30 million-a-year revenue source. Yes, a lot of the regulatory authority has moved to the division (of Gaming Enforcement). But the Casino Control Commission still has a vital role, and it will in years to come.
Q: What changes have you made at the commission since becoming chairman in August? What changes are you planning to make in the months ahead as you continue to settle in as chairman?
A: Well, starting at this commission, you have a lot of great employees. Some of these employees have been here for 25-30 years, which is extremely impressive. I have been in the industry. I understand it. Some of the things I took a look at were streamlining the process. Is it user-friendly? Can someone come in and know where to go and what to do? And can we look at doing an automated (system)?
We took a look at that, working hand-in-hand with the division. We took a look at temporary key licenses. When I worked within the casino industry, it was always a question of, “Why do we have to wait so long for our temporary keys?” I found out that the chairman actually has delegated authority to sign off on temporary keys before it has to go to the meetings. We have people that are willing to work, we have casinos that want them to work, so I have been signing off on those before meetings and basically just announcing them at meetings instead of having to wait for a month.
We put out a website that is user-friendly. It’s a very clean website. We have our key applications on there, that can be filed online. Hopefully, we won’t see any handwritten applications anymore. We’re just trying to move to the next generation in that sense.
Q: What do you think the casinos need to do to make Atlantic City more appealing for visitors?
A: Well, I don’t really want to say what the casinos need to do. It’s really what everyone needs to do. The casinos have their role, and that’s looking at nongaming amenities with the marketing they have in place. But there are still a lot of other entities here that are all working together to make Atlantic City what it can be.
So it’s really not just on the casinos. Like I said before, you have the CRDA, the ACA, the task force, the DGE and the commission working together — the governor’s state team coming up with one plan and being on the same page to do what they can to change and make Atlantic City the place we all know it can be. It’s safer. The CRDA is realigning the funds into Atlantic City. The ACA is using funds to market this region like it’s never been marketed before. And the division and the commission are all working together to streamline and make it a user-friendly organization, from casinos to key employees.
Q: You just mentioned the CRDA. In addition to your commission seat, you’re also a member of the CRDA, the state agency that uses casino revenue for redevelopment projects and oversees Atlantic City’s Tourism District. What initiatives are you planning at the CRDA to help rejuvenate Atlantic City’s economy?
A: The CRDA is extremely focused right now on revitalizing Atlantic City. There are a lot of ideas, and actually things that are in place right now that are going to be happening real soon. You have the Atlantic Avenue facade project. You have the Boardwalk facade project. You have the help of CRDA and Margaritaville and the Bass Pro Shops trying to bring these nongaming attractions in. You have their help on the Pinnacle site of developing with the ACA this artist section of the Boardwalk. They’re also looking at these vacant lots and how to make them not an eyesore anymore.
I am from the area, and I truly believe in Atlantic City. I know what it could be, and I would like to use my knowledge of the city and my knowledge of the people in it to try to really help out what I can do at the casino redevelopment authority.
Q: You grew up in a political household. Your father, Dennis Levinson, is the Atlantic County executive and formerly served on the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders. You dabbled in politics as a one-time City Council member in your hometown of Linwood. What experience or insights do you have as a former politician that might help you as the commission’s chairman?
A: Well, sitting on a council with other council members, No. 1, you know how to run a meeting and interact in meetings. So you learn how to interact and discuss things with other commissioners or council members. You know how to deal with your constituents and what they want. You know how to deal with them on an everyday basis. It’s the same thing that comes over to the commission side. You know who your audience is. You know when you need to regulate, when to make decisions and when to listen. I think that is a big factor in coming from a councilman background to a commission background.
Q: You’ve spoken of your love for Atlantic City and the fact that you grew up in Atlantic County and Atlantic City. Can you talk about some of your childhood memories and some of the things you would like to see the city return to that were part of your past that might make Atlantic City more attractive to visitors?
A: Well, I always remember Atlantic City. My grandfather owned a garage on Fairmount and Texas avenues. Coming over to Atlantic City, there was this real neighborly attitude in the area. People would stop by the gas station and know who you were. I don’t know how you get back to that, but that was always a fond memory of Atlantic City for me.
I do have a lot of feelings for Atlantic City. I feel that Atlantic City can be the city that everyone wants it to be. I can see the city becoming a nongaming resort — a more nongaming resort — having a lot more nongaming amenities. You can see what the task force is doing with Commander Gilbert. It’s clean. It’s safe. It’s amazing what the Boardwalk has transitioned to be from his leadership in the Tourism District.
You’ve seen the CRDA invest the money back into Atlantic City at rates that I haven’t seen before. It is such a positive, and it is continuing. That is what I think people have to understand. These steps that have been taken — we’re only looking at a year and a half, almost two years — this is going to continue, and it’s only going to get better.
You have groups working together. You have all of the governor’s team coming together and working together. If you don’t have people working together, a lot of this stuff cannot get accomplished. So you need the CRDA support, you need the task force support, the CRDA, DGE, the commission, and you need the city’s support. You need to have that for all of this to come together, and it is. Like I said, this is just the beginning. A lot more is coming down the road. I am very excited to see what’s going to be there.
Q: The governor has given Atlantic City five years to essentially get its act together, to become more appealing to visitors. Have you had discussions with the governor or the Governor’s Office in terms of what the commission can do to speed that process along?
A: I’ve had many discussions with the Governor’s Office on Atlantic City. We know we have to act. The more we work together, the more we can get done.
Everyone here wants to see Atlantic City succeed. We are given the tools to implement a lot of the successful ideas that we think can make Atlantic City succeed. And it is happening. It is moving in a direction that we want to see. Nongaming numbers are up, luxury taxes are up, parking is up and (August’s) gaming revenue was up. So you have a lot of things coming into place right now that are positive.
Q: Revel, Atlantic City’s newest casino, has gotten off to a disappointing start. It is just eighth among Atlantic City’s 12 casinos in gambling revenue. Why has Revel not lived up to expectations yet as a game-changer for Atlantic City?
A: I think Revel is a game-changer for Atlantic City. It’s a different model. You have to look at the total picture, the total model of Revel, not just the gaming revenue. If you walk through Revel, restaurants are full, spas are full, hotel occupancy is up. The money that is coming into Revel, a lot of it is being spent on nongaming amenities.
Yes, gaming revenue is what pays the bills and keeps the lights on. But it’s the nongaming revenue that we have to look at, because that’s what makes this a destination resort and that is the model that Revel is looking at right now. If you look at Revel and you look at their numbers for their gaming revenue, it has increased every month. So it does have a positive trend.
Q: Analysts say there are too many casinos for the market. Do you see any of the weaker casinos closing within the next year or two? What sort of ripple effect would casino closings cause for the local economy?
A: There are a lot of resources in Atlantic City right now that are trying to improve the economy. The economy in Atlantic City, in my bullish view, is going to continually rise in nongaming and gaming attractions. Only the future will tell us what happens here. I believe that with the continuing teamwork of all of these organizations, we are going to see the economy grow and our casinos survive.
Q: Not only does Atlantic City have to worry about competition from casinos in other states, there is also a steady drumbeat among North Jersey politicians for a new casino at the Meadowlands sports complex. What is your opinion about an expansion of gambling outside Atlantic City, particularly at a major location in New Jersey such as the Meadowlands?
A: Well, the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney have been very clear that they’re all in on Atlantic City. All of the resources that the state has are coming into Atlantic City. They have total faith in accomplishing those goals. It’s really up to the legislation of what happens and where all of these other casinos go. We’re here to regulate wherever they are. We just basically have to go with what Gov. Christie and Senate President Sweeney said at this time, that they are all in on Atlantic City right now.
Q: Looking into the future, where do you see Atlantic City in a year, in five years and in 10 years?
A: I see an interesting growth in this market. I actually see more of a Vegas model happening with this market. If you look at Las Vegas, their gaming revenue is slowly going in this direction (Levinson pointed downward) and their nongaming revenue is going up. I think as part of their total revenue, I think only 38 percent was gaming.
Slowly, over time, I can see Atlantic City implementing all of the initiatives that we have in place, continuing with the Tourism District, continuing with Commander Gilbert’s clean-and-safe initiative, continuing with the CRDA’s development in these areas, and looking at nongaming amenities with the ACA’s marketing bringing new people into town. I can see the nongaming revenue increasing and really taking over a lot of the revenue that is in this area. I also see gaming revenue going up.
People are going to realize that when you come to Atlantic City, there is so much here. There is no reason to go anywhere else. We’ve lost the convenience gamblers, so now we have to go after the people that want to stay a little longer and know that when you’re tired at Bally’s, you can go to another casino, go to Borgata, Revel, Harrah’s, the Atlantic Club. You could go anywhere. You don’t just have to drive into one casino and when you’re done, drive home.
On top of that, you have Margaritaville on the beach, the Bass Pro Shops, you have The Walk, Steel Pier. Everything is coming together. When people come down here and end up sitting on the Boardwalk, you will get to a point where you say, “What do I do today? There’s too much to do in one day.” So you will see more of these daytrippers or just-one-night trips turning into three nights and four nights.
Q: Realistically, can we expect all of that to happen within the next five years, or will it take longer than that?
A: I think within the next five years we will have a very good platform for this to happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen on the sixth year as opposed to the fifth year, but I believe with everything in place right now, after five years the platform will be there and everything will be in place. And to tell you the truth, I think it continues — we continue with this plan and the motivation to help Atlantic City to survive and continue to revive.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: