Legal sports gambling, which Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law this week, will be a significant addition to Atlantic City’s attractions. Not a game changer, but another big new thing for visitors this year along with two new mega-resorts and a more vibrant and optimistic atmosphere.
Sports betting might provide enough additional revenue for horse racetracks in Monmouth County and the Meadowlands to continue their operations.
But there is no hope that Atlantic City Race Course could rise from the dead and join them, limping into a still uncertain future.
While total sports gambling revenue will be substantial, it will be divided in New Jersey among the casino companies, the existing horse tracks and the online gambling operators. Soon, sports betting will be offered throughout the nation, diluting its profitability further.
So a revived Atlantic City Race Course could expect a small bit of revenue from gambling on sports other than horse races. But its costs to get even that would be prohibitive. Its horse racing facilities would have to be rebuilt, probably after a costly demolition. Then it would have to offer 50 days of live horse races a year at a loss greater than the profit from sports betting. And it would have to get all of this done in two years under the new sports gambling law.
Local legislators were bipartisan in their kind words the past month about the possibility of sports betting for the racetrack in Mays Landing. Anything looks good compared to the deteriorating remains of the facility, and political leaders don’t like to dash people’s hopes, no matter how unrealistic.
Consider them dashed. It won’t happen, the financials say it can’t happen, and it shouldn’t happen because that’s not what Atlantic County needs.
The same year that Atlantic City Race Course closed for good, 2015, AngelouEconomics produced the Atlantic County Economic Development Strategy and Action Plan. That detailed how the county should finally diversify its economy using proven development strategies.
The plan says “one of the most important actions … to change the future of Atlantic County for the better” would be to restrict development of prime county properties to best-use purposes. It identified five such properties and the biggest among them, at 250 acres, was the racetrack in Hamilton Township.
After studying the region and the site, AngelouEconomics projected a best use for the former racetrack would be an enclosed theme park. That could work, catering to millions of Jersey Shore family visitors in the summer and offering a getaway combo with Atlantic City year-round.
The Atlantic County Economic Alliance should pitch racetrack development possibilities of that magnitude nationwide. Maybe other industries would be interested. The county won’t know unless it markets the site’s advantages, and it can only do that if the property hasn’t been wasted on much lesser uses.
Making an economic development plan was the easy part. Forgetting the plan is even easier. Using it to create a better future for county residents and businesses is difficult, but would have the biggest return on investment and effort.