EAST RUTHERFORD — One look at Atlantic City’s current state is all you need to know why you shouldn’t vote to expand casino gaming, said Gary Carropina.
Carropina, 55, of North Bergen, was reading his Daily Racing Form at the Meadowlands Race Track when the question of a casino there was posed.
“I really don’t trust the state to be able to handle this and do it right. When has this state ever gotten anything right? It was supposed to do all of these things, and it hasn’t done them.”
Wednesday was the 40th anniversary of the vote that brought casinos to Atlantic City. And on Tuesday, the state will again ask voters to approve two casinos at least 72 miles from Atlantic City and in different counties.
The vote will take place as Atlantic City tries to stave off a takeover by the state Department of Community Affairs, which in a blistering 75-page report criticized the city’s plans to dig its way out of staggering debt brought about by the erosion of its tax base and a mountain of mainly casino-related tax appeals.
Not much of a selling point for casinos-as-economic-rebuilders, but that may be the one bright spot for the city.
“Atlantic City has finally seen a benefit from its financial woes,” said Donald Hoover, former casino executive and senior lecturer at the Fairleigh Dickinson University International School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. “The total lack of support for the casino expansion amendment may be due to the vast media coverage in the last several months surrounding a potential state takeover of Atlantic City. The aggressive media campaign against additional casinos in the northern part of the state most likely influenced increased opposition to the amendment.”
A recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll found more than 70 percent of registered voters opposed expanding casino gambling.
While the anti-expansion fervor has been strong in Atlantic City and South Jersey, the vote for casinos doesn’t appear to be a hot-button topic in North Jersey.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue at stake, you would never know the question is up for a public vote up north. Route 17, which surrounds the Meadowlands, is full of political signs for local and congressional elections. The only signs acknowledging the casino vote are at the racetrack.
“We just don’t have the resources to do that,” Jim Kirkos, CEO of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber, said of the limited campaign signage in North Jersey.
While Kirkos appeared resigned to defeat, a larger worry was that an extremely poor showing would delay casino expansion for a longer time period.
“I’m concerned that if this vote goes down by a wide margin, I’m not so sure the Legislature or the next governor will have an easy time getting it on the agenda again for discussion,” he said.
The introduction of casino gaming in 1978 ushered in more than three decades of prosperity for Atlantic City. From 1976 to 2008, the height of the casino industry in the resort, the value of the city’s property base grew by more than 6,750 percent, topping out at $20.5 billion in 2008. But since 2008 and the introduction of casino gaming in neighboring states, the city has seen a 64 percent loss of value, leaving it on the brink of financial collapse.
Similarly, North Jersey officials are touting casinos at the Meadowlands as a way of returning the site to its past glory. In its heyday, the Meadowlands Sports Complex hosted everything from the NCAA Tournament Regional Finals to the Final Four to the Stanley Cup Finals. The complex was the epicenter of Northeast sports.
That all changed when both the New Jersey Devils and Nets left the Izod Center for better deals elsewhere. Add that to its struggling harness racing industry, and the once proud sports complex has lost its luster.
“What it had in the ‘70s and ‘80s with the original Giants Stadium, the Big M racetrack and the arena powered the economy for the region,” said Kirkos. “It was no doubt the nucleus for everything that was built around here.”
The addition of a casino and convention center along with the opening of American Dream, a five-story retail and entertainment complex under construction at the site, will return the site to its past glory, Kirkos said. A privately funded casino in the Meadowlands will generate 43,000 construction and permanent jobs and at least $1 billion in new gaming wins, according to proponents of the plan.
“We think a casino as part of the entertainment mix, horse racing, sports, retail, gaming, it would work well, it would offer a little bit of something for everyone,” Kirkos said. “This would help us recapture the convenience market, which Atlantic City has already lost. If people are going for one day, they are going to Sands or Mount Airy, not Atlantic City.”
The plan also calls for support of New Jersey’s ailing racing industry, which is beset by competition from neighboring states whose casino revenues provide purse supplements and other benefits to racing programs. Without support from casinos, New Jersey risks losing 13,000 agricultural jobs and 53,000 acres of farmland.
While improving the Meadowlands, Kirkos said a casino at the site would also benefit Atlantic City. The taxes generated from the casino would help pay for the city’s transition to a more tourism-based economy, Kirkos said.
“We have given all of this tax revenue to others,” Kirkos said. “We need to get revenue from anywhere we can, and sending it to New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania makes no sense. This will attract people rather than sending them out.”