Christie takes aim at another A.C. challenge

Posted: August 18, 2014

As Atlantic City braces for a wave of casino closings expected to put more than 6,000 out of work, Gov. Christie, who once prophesied a promising future for the Shore resort, is again contemplating how to steer the city away from its woes.

Over the last four years, the governor pushed for change in Atlantic City, including the completion of the lavish Revel Casino Hotel, which last week became the fourth casino to announce its closure this year. A hearing is scheduled for Monday in bankruptcy court.

Christie, whose administration pledged tax credits toward the $2.4 billion Revel project, also signed a law to streamline casino regulations to attract investment.

And he advocated for a campaign to rebrand Atlantic City as more than a gaming destination - creating a state-run tourism district and designating more casino revenues for marketing - while also drawing a hard line, at least initially, against the expansion of casinos to North Jersey.

"I have spent more time and more energy in Atlantic City over the last four years than almost any city in New Jersey," Christie said Thursday at a town-hall-style event in Ocean City, where casino workers demanded that the governor save their jobs.

While emphasizing that he could not intervene in private business decisions, Christie said he was trying to help workers.

"There's not a person in this state who I want to lose your job," Christie said. "It's not good for you and your family, and it's not good for me as governor."

The anticipated loss of 6,400 jobs from the closures of Revel, Showboat, and Trump Plaza - expected over the next month - deals a setback to the state's economy at a time when economists say job growth remains tepid. A fourth casino, the Atlantic Club, closed earlier this year.

The state's total payroll employment increased by 21,800 jobs from December through July, according to the Labor Department. Total payroll private-sector employment - a figure that excludes a drop in public-sector jobs - grew by 27,600 jobs during that period.

"A potential loss of this size is a significant hit," said Joseph Seneca, an economics professor at Rutgers University and former chairman of the state Council of Economic Advisers.

Factoring in less spending by shuttered businesses and unemployed workers, the economic effect of the casino closures could be the equivalent of 10,000 lost jobs, Seneca said - an estimate he described as conservative.

The governor plans to convene a group of political and industry leaders Sept. 8 for a summit on Atlantic City's future.

Given Christie's touting of a five-year plan to revitalize Atlantic City, some critics fault the governor for the current situation.

"It's a huge black mark, because he came up with this plan four years ago, and it's failed," said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), a vocal advocate of sports betting and a North Jersey casino.

Others, however, say the situation stems from market forces beyond Christie's control as the city's casinos face heightened competition in surrounding states.

"What's going on here is very basic supply-and-demand economics," said Sen. Jim Whelan (D., Atlantic), a former mayor of Atlantic City. "The monopoly we enjoyed is over. . . . It has nothing to do with whoever the governor is, or who the mayor is."

Past governors have been involved in decisions that shaped Atlantic City. Democrat Brendan Byrne lent support to the legalization of casino gambling in 1976.

Jim Florio, a Democrat, issued bonds to build a convention center, viewed today as an important draw in efforts to broaden Atlantic City's appeal. And under Republican Christie Whitman, the state partnered with casino mogul Steve Wynn to finance a $330 million highway tunnel project.

Christie helped advance the Revel project, announcing in 2011 a plan to revive construction on the half-finished casino in conjunction with a state takeover of the city's tourism efforts.

"This is truly a landmark day for Atlantic City and the beginning of a transformation," Christie said at a news conference at the casino in February 2011.

The state Economic Development Authority approved a deal to give Revel $261 million in tax incentives over 20 years, while the state received 20 percent equity in the project. State officials say Revel never received any money because the casino did not become profitable.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said last week that the Revel situation hadn't presented Christie much choice.

"If he didn't finish it, having a giant skeleton of a building sitting there was a lot worse," said Sweeney, also an advocate of Revel's completion.

Also that day in 2011, Christie signed a law backed by Sweeney and other Democrats creating the tourism district, giving the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority oversight powers while enabling more casino money to be used for marketing.

Christie, "much more so than any of his immediate predecessors, has been focused on Atlantic City and how important Atlantic City is to the state's tourism economy, and tourism to the overall economy," said Steven Perskie, a former state casino commission chairman and Democratic state lawmaker who wrote the legislation that legalized gambling in Atlantic City.

Not everyone has embraced state involvement. "I think where the problems come in sometimes is you have Big Brother . . . trying to force their agenda down the throats of locals," said Lorenzo Langford, the former mayor of Atlantic City who sparred with Christie over the tourism district.

The casino closures won't be a significant hurdle to a possible Christie presidential bid, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. Where Christie will be challenged, Dworkin said, "is in the broader narrative that portrays New Jersey as a state that has not had as robust an economy as every other state around us."

He added, however, that people vote "based on what they're hoping will happen in the future."

"I would like to see Christie become president," said Mary Ann Radford, a 27-year veteran of Showboat who went to Ocean City on Thursday. "But he's got to handle this situation and assist our own state."


mhanna@phillynews.com609-989-8990

@maddiehanna

www.inquirer.com/christiechronicles

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