Hard Rock International unveiled its plan Wednesday to open a Meadowlands casino as early as next summer, the latest public-relations push in a campaign to dismantle Atlantic City’s intrastate casino monopoly and build what some say could be one of the nation’s busiest gambling halls.
The billion-dollar, 650,000-square-foot property, with its glassy dome-shaped entertainment venue, “will compete with anything in the world,” Hard Rock Chairman Jim Allen said at a news conference at the Meadowlands.
Hard Rock’s hallmark mammoth guitar will be “a beacon in the night” beckoning New York City residents to 200 gambling tables and 5,000 slot machines across the Hudson River, he said.
Lawmakers on Monday introduced a bill to authorize a statewide vote on building as many as three North Jersey casinos and stripping Atlantic City of a state casino monopoly it has enjoyed since the first casino opened there in 1978. Legislation must pass by Aug. 3 for a referendum to be held in November.
North Jersey casino boosters say new casinos will keep New Jersey gamblers from being diverted to New York, which is expanding its stock of casinos, and from Sands Bethlehem, a northeast Pennsylvania powerhouse that attracts busloads of gamblers from the New York metropolitan area. But critics say even one — let alone three — North Jersey casinos will savage Atlantic City’s already battered gambling economy.
Proponents of the Hard Rock project forecast it will generate $400 million in tax revenue per year, about double what the state collects from Atlantic City casinos. Half of Hard Rock’s gambling tax revenue could be channeled back to Atlantic City to revive the town, and the casino will create about 4,000 permanent jobs, Allen said. Annual revenue contributions could be supplemented by a single cash infusion — more than $2 billion — raised through a state-supported, tax-exempt bond secured by Hard Rock’s revenue stream, he said.
“This is not a fight between North Jersey and South Jersey,” said Meadowlands operator Jeff Gural, who claims a 55 percent tax rate on Hard Rock’s gambling revenue — Atlantic City’s rate is 8 percent — will yield enough tax dollars to support the town and beef up purses at New Jersey’s moribund horse tracks. “We’re fighting with New York and Pennsylvania,” he said.
But South Jersey officials, led by Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, fiercely oppose casino expansion in the state, saying it will undercut a nascent recovery in Atlantic City, where gambling revenue has halved since peaking at $5.2 billion in 2006. “All you’re going to do is cannibalize the market you have,” Brown said.
Gural and Allen say they are prepared to spend $10 million to $20 million on a public-relations campaign to win approval from voters. They say a 2016 referendum would be far inferior to one this year, because the issue of casino expansion would be overshadowed by the presidential election, which exponentially inflates advertisement costs.
“We have to vote on this by Aug. 3,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, a hard-charging North Jersey casino evangelist who called Pennsylvania and New York casinos an existential threat to the New Jersey gambling industry.
If North Jersey casino revenue isn’t shunted southward, Atlantic City is “going to end up with two more casinos closing,” said Caputo, who chairs the Assembly’s committee on gambling.
Caputo, part of a contingent of lawmakers who want casinos in Essex, Bergen and Hudson counties, said, “This is about survival for the state of New Jersey.”
“Do we want to be in the gaming business or not?”