Should Atlantic City try to block casinos elsewhere in NJ?
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — With proposals to expand casino gambling to other parts of New Jersey gaining momentum, Atlantic City is faced with an existential choice: fight to the end to try to keep it from happening, or accept it as inevitable and extract the most concessions it can from new, in-state competitors.
It's a question the city and its political and business supporters need to answer soon. Two bills that would ask voters whether to amend the state constitution and expand gambling beyond Atlantic City have been proposed, and lawmakers are touting casino projects in the Bergen County Meadowlands, Jersey City, Newark and central New Jersey.
While crucial details remain to be worked out — including whether the vote will even happen this November — backers of casinos in the northern part of the state, just outside New York City, promise to dedicate a significant share of the new tax revenue they generate to helping Atlantic City recover.
Atlantic City's mayor, Don Guardian, maintained a conciliatory stance as casino companies in his city shut down four of its 12 casinos last year. But he draws the line at allowing casinos anywhere else. He and others note that a northern New Jersey casino would do well — for a while. With New York state mulling the idea of a casino in Manhattan, a northern New Jersey one could soon find itself in the same situation Atlantic City casinos now face.
"Any casino outside Atlantic City would certainly be detrimental to the amount of visitors and revenue we receive in Atlantic City," Guardian said. "A casino in north Jersey is going to cannibalize two or more casinos in Atlantic City, and then will lose out to casinos in New York and Manhattan. We need to do everything in our power to keep gaming only in Atlantic City."
Al Wallinger, who has worked at the Trump Taj Mahal since the day it opened in 1990, worries he could lose his job if casinos open elsewhere, even though the proposed casino at the Meadowlands Racetrack would give first priority to laid-off Atlantic City casino workers.
"If that happens, some of the operators will want to go to north Jersey and sell their property here, or just decide they've had enough of Atlantic City and shut down," he said. "Now you're talking about a lot more people out of work."
Atlantic City-area Assemblymen including Democrat Vince Mazzeo and Republican Chris Brown agree a fight is needed. And Tony Rodio, president of the Tropicana Casino and Resort, has been one of the most vocal opponents of casinos elsewhere in New Jersey.
"There are a number of companies that have invested hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars into Atlantic City under the premise that that's the only place that would allow gambling," he said. "It would be unfair to allow new companies who haven't invested a dime or employed one person in New Jersey over the last 37 years to reap the benefits of a casino just outside of New York City."
Sen. Jim Whelan, the former Democratic mayor of Atlantic City, thinks casino expansion is inevitable.
"If this is going to happen, and I think it eventually will, then let's protect our interests," he said. "We want significant dollars coming back to Atlantic City, and (expansion) has to be limited. Having three new casinos in the north and one in Middlesex will cannibalize the whole state. This has done nothing but gain momentum. I'd love for this all to go away and be able to tell the existing casinos we have nothing to worry about from New York and other states, but that's not the case. I'm not going to lie to you."
Steve Norton, a casino analyst who was vice president of New Jersey's first casino, Resorts, when it opened in 1978, says Atlantic City needs to look down at its hand — and realize it's holding a pair of twos.
"We should gladly accept a meaningful portion of north Jersey win taxes, for giving up our state monopoly, a monopoly with little continuing benefit," he said. "There will be further harm to Atlantic City, but if AC gets a meaningful portion of the new casino tax revenue, they should be better off."
He said the real impact of a north Jersey casino would be on casinos in suburban New York and the Sands in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Jeff Gural, president of Meadowlands Racing and Entertainment, is offering to pay the 55 percent slots tax that Pennsylvania casinos pay — far more than the 8 percent Atlantic City casinos pay. He estimates $200 million a year could flow from the project he and Hard Rock would build at the track to Atlantic City.
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