Sweeney says N. Jersey gaming could help Atlantic City

N.J. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in March of expanding gaming to North Jersey: "It's not going to happen." But Monday, he said he is open to the idea. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
N.J. Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in March of expanding gaming to North Jersey: "It's not going to happen." But Monday, he said he is open to the idea. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 09, 2014

TRENTON - While proclaiming his staunch support for Atlantic City, State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Monday that he is open to expanding casinos to North Jersey - as long as they generate a "sustainable amount of money for capital and infrastructure" for the struggling resort.

Lawmakers could put a gaming question on the ballot as soon as November 2015, Sweeney said, giving residents a chance to end Atlantic City's 36-year exclusive right to casino gambling in New Jersey.

The seaside city has been battered by regional competition from Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland. It has lost nearly half of its gaming revenue since 2006 - going from a market of $5.2 billion to $2.9 billion last year.

"If we're going to talk about gaming somewhere else, we're going to talk about a way to help ensure that Atlantic City is strengthened, not weakened further," Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said Monday in his Statehouse office.

Sweeney first disclosed his interest in permitting gaming in North Jersey last week during a meeting with the Bergen Record's editorial board.

The position represented a significant pivot from Sweeney's long-standing pledge to swear off any discussions of gaming outside Atlantic City until Gov. Christie's five-year revitalization plan expires in February 2016. Sweeney's remarks come just weeks after the newest casino, Revel, declared bankruptcy for the second time, and Caesars Entertainment Inc. announced that it would close the Mardi Gras-themed Showboat by summer's end.

On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court shot down New Jersey's bid to offer sports betting at Atlantic City casinos and the state's racetracks, which Sweeney had advocated.

Christie also signaled an openness last week to considering casino expansion next year, though his five-year revitalization plan includes a moratorium on new gaming.

"It's a conversation I'm willing to have," the governor told reporters in Point Pleasant on Thursday, according to the Record.

Sweeney said his priority was to stabilize Atlantic City and create jobs there in light of recent setbacks.

"We're well-positioned to pull more revenue in from New York if it's placed properly," he said of North Jersey casinos, which could be in the Meadowlands, Newark, Jersey City, or other locations.

"People have to be understanding that if we're going to talk about doing something else, we have to talk about how we're going to create thousands of jobs," Sweeney said.

He said he did not want to speculate further on job creation and declined to say whether he would want a percentage of gambling revenue generated in North Jersey to be dedicated to Atlantic City.

One option, he said, was for money generated in North Jersey to go toward repurposing casinos in Atlantic City or demolishing them to create new economic opportunities. He did not provide specifics.

Nearly half - 45 percent - of Atlantic City's customers come from North Jersey and New York. Those opposed to a North Jersey casino argue putting one there would discourage many residents from going to Atlantic City.

State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union), a longtime proponent of expanding gaming, said North Jersey casinos would be able to dedicate about $100 million in revenue a year for 10 years to Atlantic City.

Such investment could "transform it into a resort destination rather than a casino destination," Lesniak said.

As recently as March, Sweeney publicly opposed legislation to add gaming in the Meadowlands. "It's not going to happen," he said at a March 21 news conference in Atlantic City. "I wouldn't move it through the Senate."

Critics of gaming expansion were clearly stung by Sweeney's apparent pullback. They say that the five-year plan for Atlantic City is working and that the resort is moving in the right direction.

"We need to remind everybody there is a five-year bipartisan agreement in effect," said Assemblyman Christopher A. Brown (R., Atlantic), who plans a news conference Tuesday in front of the Showboat to discuss future economic development for the resort. "This notion, since gaming revenue is down, that we should abandon the five-year agreement is just plain wrong.

"Of course, gaming revenue is down due to the proliferation of gaming in states surrounding New Jersey," Brown said. "In fact, due to oversaturation in the market, gaming revenue is also down in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

"Talking about putting a casino in the Meadowlands before the five-year period is over simply injects uncertainty in the market and makes it harder for Atlantic City to attract development," he said.

Brown cited a Casino Association of New Jersey study from 2010 that concluded gaming in the Meadowlands would siphon off 45 percent of gaming revenue from Atlantic City, and the industry would lose about 3,800 jobs and $190 million in payroll, and divert $45 million from seniors and disabled who receive benefits from the tax on gross gaming revenue.

Sweeney said his new position was not an indication that the five-year plan has failed. He said he had held private talks with North Jersey officials about expanding gambling for about a year. He maintained his hard line publicly because, he said, "I still believe in Atlantic City."

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, who is seeking millions of dollars in state aid as gaming tax revenue has plunged, took a conciliatory tone.

"Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney both continue to be huge supporters of Atlantic City," he said in an e-mail Monday.

The Boardwalk faces three possible vacancies. The Atlantic Club Casino-Hotel closed in mid-January; Showboat will close on Aug. 31, and bankrupt Revel has threatened to close Sept. 1 if it does not find a buyer soon.


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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