The intent of the hearings is to examine recommendations made by Gov. Christie's Advisory Commission on Gaming, Sports and Entertainment.
On July 21, Christie announced his plans for a state takeover of Atlantic City to save its struggling casinos, clean up its image and boost tourism and convention business there.
The first summit hearing, held last month in Atlantic City, underscored the deep divisions between the northern and southern parts of the state.
North Jersey lawmakers, including Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Union County democrat, have long championed building a casino in the Meadowlands, while South Jersey lawmakers, like Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May) are adamantly opposed to any new competition to Atlantic City.
Today's focus was on salvaging the Meadowlands complex and racetrack. In opening remarks, panel chair Sen. James Whelan, an Atlantic County Democrat and former Atlantic City mayor, declared, "We are in this together."
Among the first speakers was East Rutherford Mayor James Casella, who expressed his concern over what he said was the continuing decline of the horse racing industry. "I would hate to see this place go back to what it was, which was a barren wasteland," Casella said. "This really is the economic engine, not only of North Jersey, but all of New Jersey."
Bergen County executive Dennis McNerney said he believed Christie's commission report was "motivated by special interests."
Morning speakers looked at ways to make the Meadowlands complex, including Xanadu, its partially built entertainment and retail complex that was taken over by lenders on Aug. 9, into a world class entertainment destination.
But that goal, said some South Jersey lawmakers, could not be achieved at the expense of Atlantic City.
Van Drew, who joked, "I'm from the deep south," said the three counties in the state with the highest unemployment are Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland Counties. "We stand to cannibalize an entire industry if we have internal [instate] competition," he said. "So this is serious business for us. We can't hurt one region of the state to help another."
Atlantic City has had exclusive rights to gambling since legislation passed in 1976. Atlantic City's first casino, Resorts, opened on May 26, 1978.
But regional competition, especially coming from Pennsylvania in the last four years, has cut deeply into the resort's gaming revenues, forcing thousands of casino layoffs and bringing capital investment there to a standstill.
Lesniak has been pushing for ways to generate other forms of gambling revenue, including sportsbetting and Internet gaming at Atlantic City's casinos. He said his plan for a casino at the Meadowlands calls for setting aside a portion of its proceeds toward developing Atlantic City into an overnight resort destination.
"Gaming in New Jersey supports tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of revenues from North to South, East to West," Lesniak said on Thursday. He serves on the Democratic gaming panel that was hosting today's hearing. "If we fail to maximize the potential of all our gaming locations, there will be no winners, just losers. Our goal is to produce a win, win, win."
Among audience members today was Ken Stokes, 54, of New Milford, from Carpenters Local 15 of Hackensack, who has been unemployed for the past year. He said he's been waiting to work on the Xanadu complex, which has been shut down for three years for lack of financing.
"I'm hoping to work on the project. That's why we're here," Stokes said. He said a close friend, also a carpenter, was recently laid off from the Meadowlands Racetrack. "They let him go because thoroughbred racing is down substantially," he said.
"Around here, we're all dependent on the Meadowlands."
A third and final hearing to review Christie's plan is slated for the middle part of the state sometime soon.
Christie's proposed overhaul also calls for the creation of a state-controlled Atlantic City Tourism District, streamlining casino regulations, keeping all gaming revenue collected by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in Atlantic City and ending the subsidy to the horse racing industry from A.C. casinos.
Many of the recommendations require legislative approval - no easy feat since Republican Christie must work with a Democratic-controlled legislature.
Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or firstname.lastname@example.org