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Trenton’s Bad Bet spent more than $14 million fighting North Jersey casino expansion two years ago.

Atlantic City’s gaming industry is riding a hot streak this month with the arrival of legalized sports betting and the impending opening of two casinos.

But a bad beat could be in the cards for the seaside resort in the form of an already soundly defeated foe.

Despite a clear defeat at the ballot box in 2016, when nearly 78 percent of voters rejected the idea of expanding casino gaming outside Atlantic City, lobbyists and experts agree the prospects of North Jersey casinos are far from dim.

“We’ve seen casino expansion proponents continue their efforts to expand gaming outside of Atlantic City despite the overwhelming voice back in 2016 and, so, we still remained concerned about that expansion happening,” said Bill Cortese, executive director of Trenton’s Bad Bet, a group that spent more than $14 million fighting North Jersey casino expansion two years ago.

At the start of the 2018-19 legislative session in Trenton, several measures were introduced in support of expanding casino gaming. The most significant is ACR32, sponsored by Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, which says the Legislature intends to approve an amendment to the state constitution to authorize casino gambling in the northern part of the state. The resolution was referred to the Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee, of which Caputo is chairman, but has gone no further.

A call to Caputo’s legislative office in Belleville, Essex County, was not returned.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has said he supports expanding casino gaming as a matter of economic opportunity and job creation. Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, both voted in favor of putting the casino gaming referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

Former Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, now head of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, called reexamining North Jersey casinos a “top priority” during a March meeting with the Meadowlands Regional Chamber. Prieto said he wanted to hold meetings with heads of the Meadowlands American Dream project in East Rutherford to work on a master plan for the entertainment and retail megacomplex that would include a casino.

Cortese said his group will continue to fight North Jersey casino expansion to “protect South Jersey jobs” and the “billions in economic activity” the gaming industry creates in the region.

Locally, Atlantic City Council unanimously passed a resolution in opposition to casino expansion in March, and the Buena Vista Township Committee did likewise in February.

“Atlantic City just doesn’t see the writing on the wall,” said Steve Norton, a veteran casino executive and one of the architects of bringing casino gaming to New Jersey in the late 1970s, adding if the city played its cards right, it could actually benefit from North Jersey gaming.

Norton proposed that a portion of revenue from North Jersey casinos could be returned to Atlantic City for senior and disabled programs and for new partnerships at Atlantic City International Airport, which could expand the market’s reach to major airhubs in Atlanta, Dallas and Houston.

Furthermore, Norton said if a gaming operator already in Atlantic City, such as MGM, Caesars or Hard Rock, opened a North Jersey casino, it could offer comp packages for players to visit the oceanside resort.

“Atlantic City should understand that if they get taxes from the Meadowlands, it could be a win-win for everybody,” Norton said.

Bob Ambrose, a gaming consultant and professor of casino management at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said there were valid points on both sides of the issue.

”Expanding casinos within New Jersey’s borders is a voter issue,” Ambrose said. “At some point, I have no doubt the topic will come up again.”

Tony Marino, a local analyst, said sports betting may prove to be the catalyst to reopen the door for expanded gaming in New Jersey.

“The unintended consequence of legalizing sportsbooks at Monmouth Park and Meadowlands racetracks is to give the tracks new ammunition to reopen the argument that they should now be allowed to have video slot machines for their patrons,” he said.

Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural told The Associated Press on Friday he planned to begin offering sports betting July 15.

But not all casino gaming experts are sold on a revival of North Jersey expansion.

“It seems like this effort may be running out of steam,” said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “With casinos fairly well spread around the Northeast, there might not be much more demand for casinos in North Jersey. I think that sports betting might either satisfy the appetites of North Jersey politicians for gaming money, or whet them. ... It all depends on how the public responds.”

Contact: 609-272-7222 DDanzis@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressDanzis

Staff Writer

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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