Lieutenant governor remains mum on Internet wagering and sport betting in Atlantic City

Lt. Gov. KimGuadagno delivers the keynote remarks at the East Coast Gaming Congress at the Revel in Atlantic City. She gave out her cellphone number but would not take questions on two controversial topics. DANNY DRAKE / Atlantic City Press
Lt. Gov. KimGuadagno delivers the keynote remarks at the East Coast Gaming Congress at the Revel in Atlantic City. She gave out her cellphone number but would not take questions on two controversial topics. DANNY DRAKE / Atlantic City Press
Posted: May 19, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY — At the East Coast Gaming Congress here on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno sounded more like she was on the campaign stump than simply speaking to gambling-industry executives.

Guadagno, a fill-in for Gov. Christie, dodged all questions regarding Internet gaming and sports betting at the gathering in the new Revel Casino. Instead, she chanted a familiar chorus: That it was her boss who ensured that Revel got built with $261 million in state tax credits, who streamlined regulations in the battered gambling town to entice investors, and who was going all-out to get Atlantic City back on track.

“We came to Revel in 2010 when it was an empty shell at the end of the Boardwalk,” she said inside the Social, one of two theaters at Revel. “We promised then that we would do everything we needed to get the building open.”

Guadagno, who last appeared at the casino on April 2, when it began its eight-week “soft” opening, then gave out her cellphone number and invited anyone with a complaint about state government to use it.“The smart people are those who have access to elected officials,” the former Monmouth County sheriff said. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and a new attitude in New Jersey.”

Trenton’s top politician, Christie, was noticeably absent from the two-day affair, which began Wednesday.

For several months, the Republican — who created a state-run tourism district here to help turn the resort’s fortunes around — had been scheduled to give the noon keynote address. He backed out last week because of a scheduling conflict, according to his press secretary, Michael Drewniak. But Christie’s schedule Thursday showed him conducting no other state business at the time.

“The people of New Jersey pay me to stand in for the governor,” Guadagno said when asked afterward why Christie did not attend.

Some key Democrats and gaming-industry insiders have speculated that Christie’s national political ambitions have him hoping to avoid two of the Garden State’s biggest issues — sports betting, for which he had expressed his support, and online wagering, on which he appeared to be softening.

Critics contend Christie has fallen silent on the issues for fear of alienating, at least for now, conservative GOP donors — including Las Vegas Sands Corp. chief executive Sheldon Adelson and Woody Johnson, owner of the New York Jets football team and a close friend of Christie’s — who may be weighing their support for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Christie has campaigned for Romney and his name continues to be mentioned as his possible running mate.

Guadagno, who boasted she answers her own cellphone, made it clear she too would not address either issue.

“You can ask me anything,” she told the audience of about 400, “except questions on Internet gaming and sports betting today.”

Christie’s and Guadagno’s evasiveness on the issues will slow New Jersey down, said State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), who sponsored both measures.

“I’ve been saying for over two years that without Internet gaming, Atlantic City will not grow and some casinos will close,” said Lesniak, who was on an “Understanding the I-Gaming Frenzy” panel later in the day. “Gov. Christie needs to understand that.

“I’m concerned that his no-show at this conference, and his lieutenant governor’s refusal to speak on the topic, means he doesn’t yet,” Lesniak said. “I don’t want a casino or two to have to close before he does.”

But during a panel of Wall Street gaming analysts, at least one expert — Andrew Zarnett of Deutsche Bank AG — predicted there would be no casino closures here over the next 12 to 18 months.

“Because they expect Internet gaming to get started soon and will keep the casino open” to offer it, he said. Lesniak’s measure would require that Internet gaming be available only through the casinos.

Tony Rodio, president and chief operating officer of Tropicana Entertainment, which owns the Tropicana here, called sports betting and Internet gaming “the most important legislative initiatives for Atlantic City and its casinos.”

“We need to move on both,” he said during a morning panel on increased casino competition in the Mid-Atlantic.

The gaming analysts gave their take on the potential impact of Revel on the Atlantic City market, and the outlook here in general as more casinos spring up along the East Coast — including in New York, Maryland, and soon, Massachusetts, which last year legalized casinos.

“Revel is a big test” of whether a casino’s non-gaming attractions can outweigh the convenience of closer-to-home gambling parlors, said John Maxwell of Jefferies & Co.

Added Brian Egger, managing director of equity research at Topeka Capital Markets: “It really has to do with increasing the length of stay and attracting non-gaming patrons.”

The $2.4 billion Revel was not enough to propel Atlantic City’s casinos to higher gaming revenue in April. The newcomer generated just $13.4 million in gambling revenue during its first month of operation, eighth among the town’s 12 casinos. But only half its restaurants and rooms were available. Full operations begin next week for Revel’s Memorial Day weekend grand opening.

Atlantic City’s casinos posted $260.6 million in winnings from slot machines and table games last month, a 10 percent decline from April 2011, according to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement.

“The key is for us to shift the focus away from gaming,” Liza Cartmell, chief executive of the new Atlantic City Alliance, said Wednesday. The group is charged with a five-year, $30 million-a-year rebranding campaign to get tourists to return to the resort.

“We really have to build out the citywide events and put that [effort] on steroids to grow the midweek and off-peak season market,” said Cartmell, a former president of Aramark’s sports and entertainment division.

Contact Suzette Parmley at 856-779-3844 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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