ATLANTIC CITY — Gov. Chris Christie pledged his full support to help rescue Atlantic City from its economic crisis, but stopped short of offering any specific proposals following a closed-door summit Monday with top political, casino and labor leaders.
The governor repeatedly said that “everything is on the table” when pressed for details by the media at the conclusion of private discussions that focused on the city’s future and lasted more than two hours.
In the meantime, Christie plans to begin crafting plans for Atlantic City in 30 days and will convene a second meeting within 45 days. He maintained that Monday’s summit was the start of preliminary discussions and it would have been “fake” to have announced anything specific before everything was ready.
Summit participants will submit their ideas to Christie adviser Jon Hanson, who authored the 2010 report that would later form the blueprint for the governor’s five-year initiative to reinvigorate Atlantic City, including the creation of a state-run Tourism District. The governor said he is committed to the five-year timetable, which expires at the end of 2015.
Christie stressed the need for the city to transition from a gaming-centric economy to one offering more retail, dining and entertainment attractions to soften the blow of casino competition in surrounding states. Atlantic City hopes to diversify into a broader-based tourist destination now that its East Coast monopoly on casino gambling is long gone.
“We have work to do to build the city beyond just a gambling attraction,” Christie said.
Top casino executives were part of the summit, including Gary Loveman, head of Caesars Entertainment, Morris Bailey, owner of Resorts Casino Hotel, Tilman Fertitta, owner of Golden Nugget Atlantic City, Tom Ballance, president of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, and Tony Rodio, CEO of Tropicana Casino and Resort. Afterward, the casino executives did not appear with Christie when he met with the media.
The governor asserted that it was unavoidable for Atlantic City to suffer a downturn following the explosion of rival casino markets throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
“This was an inevitable occurrence,” he said. “When you have the kind of competition that’s been coming up, Atlantic City at this size of a gaming footprint was not going to last.”
But he and other political leaders noted the city has made some progress already with its nongambling attractions, including a 95 percent hotel occupancy rate over the summer and a boost in luxury taxes on such things as drinks and entertainment.
“Look, the death of Atlantic City is far exaggerated,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney said.
“Atlantic City has a tremendous future,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto added.
Mayor Don Guardian and City Council President William “Speedy” Marsh said they would use the summit to lobby for more state aid to help the financially ailing resort. Guardian characterized the meeting as “great” after it wrapped up, but declined further comment.
The city’s economic woes — three casinos have already closed this year and Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino is scheduled to shut down in a week — have prompted some politicians to call for the expansion of casino gambling to other parts of New Jersey, including the Meadowlands sports complex in Bergen County.
Christie said he did not make any recommendations during the summit about the possibility of expanding casino gambling outside Atlantic City. He added, though, that he would not rule it out as discussions continue on ways to revitalize the city.
“Everything is on the table,” he said.
The governor and Sweeney have been open to suggestions of possibly using casino revenue generated in other parts of the state to help support Atlantic City’s redevelopment.
New Jersey voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment to expand casinos outside Atlantic City. Christie indicated that a ballot referendum would not come before voters until at least November 2015, if the state Legislature authorized one.
“We’re a long, long way away from that,” he said.
Atlantic County politicians strenuously object to casinos elsewhere in the state, arguing that they would cannibalize the Atlantic City market. But some appear resigned to an expansion of gambling.
“I am opposed to it, but I think that it’s going to happen,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, and a former Atlantic City mayor.
Protesters who gathered outside the headquarters of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, where the summit was held, waved signs that denounced casinos at the Meadowlands.
“Vote no to North Jersey casinos,” one sign read.
One protester shouted, “No casinos elsewhere. Not at the Meadowlands.”
The closing of the Atlantic Club, Showboat and Revel casinos has sent shock waves through the local economy. Another blow will come when Trump Plaza shuts down on Sept. 16. Altogether, 8,000 casino employees will lose their jobs. Just eight casinos will be left after all the closings.
Protesters focused on the massive job losses.
“Save our city. Save our jobs,” they chanted.
Christie said the state, in collaboration with labor unions and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, will do all it can to help out-of-work casino employees find new jobs.
“It’s an awful thing,” he said of the job cuts.
Analysts predict even more casinos may shut down as Atlantic City continues to be pressured by gaming competition in neighboring states. Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort is warning of bankruptcy amid fears that its future is tenuous.
On Monday, the Christie administration gave a boost to the gambling industry by issuing an order that would allow casinos and New Jersey’s horseracing tracks to offer sports betting. The move is expected to be challenged in court by professional and collegiate sports leagues.
So far, New Jersey’s efforts to legalize sports betting have been blocked by the courts. In ruling against New Jersey, the courts have cited a 1992 federal ban on sports betting in all but four states — Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana. Those states had a form of sports betting on the books before the ban took effect. But Christie seems undeterred.
“There’s nothing that prevents entities from going forward and offering sports betting,” he said of New Jersey’s order for casinos and the racetracks.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: