Andrew George
2016-03-14
NJBIZ

New Jersey voters will be asked this November to decide if casino gaming in the state should expand beyond Atlantic City, after a resolution to place the question on the ballot received the necessary three-fifths majority support from both the Senate and the Assembly on Monday.

Supporters of the measure see Monday’s vote as the first step towards bringing resort-style gaming destinations to northern New Jersey.

“There’s a new world order when it comes to casino gaming and we have to act to compete with the casinos in other states,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who came to terms on an agreement for the resolution in January with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus). “New Jersey no longer has a monopoly on casinos in the Northeast; there are an increasing number of competitors in nearby states. Expanding casinos to North Jersey will contribute to the state’s economy with an investment in jobs and economic activity. The casino expansion will also help generate state funds in support of the programs that serve senior citizens and the disabled.”  

The resolution calls for two new gaming permits to go to planned casinos in separate counties located at least 75 miles away from Atlantic City. Only currently licensed operators in New Jersey will be eligible to apply for a new permit and must commit to a guaranteed $1 billion capital investment for each project.

“The immediate investment in North Jersey will generate billions of dollars in private sector construction work and will contribute to long-term economic activity in the region,” added state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge). “We need to recapture the gaming business that has migrated out of state and revive a business sector that has long been important to the state’s economy.”

Atlantic City area officials have largely rejected the proposal from its onset, claiming that casinos in the northern half of the state will cannibalize an already oversaturated market. The measure calls for the city to receive up to one-third of generated revenues for revitalization purposes.

"The morning that a North Jersey casino opens, over 10,000 hard-working Atlantic County residents will wake up without a job and without an opportunity to put food on the table,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield). “This legislation is taking the livelihood out from beneath our already struggling middle-class families.”

Mazzeo and state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Northfield) pledged Monday to work towards defeating the ballot proposal.

“This is once again a shortsighted move that will do nothing more than saturate an already overly-saturated gaming market, jeopardizing jobs and investment in Atlantic City,” Whelan said. “No one has been able to adequately say how North Jersey casinos will be successful when New York City inevitably gets casino gaming. It is fantasy to think that North Jersey casinos will generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Atlantic City. I will do everything I can to defeat this referendum at the polls in November.”

Earlier Monday, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who is currently battling several legislators in a fight over a proposed state takeover of the city’s finances, announced a panel discussion scheduled for next week on casino expansion “compromise” efforts featuring a number of lawmakers and business leaders.

Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Jim Kirkos, who is scheduled to participate on Guardian’s panel, cheered Monday’s news.

“The prospect of casino properties in the northern part of New Jersey is not just an opportunity to plug the state’s gaming revenue that is leaking over our borders, but to augment the destination economy in our region,” Kirkos said. “The Meadowlands Sports Complex stands poised to once again be one of the great entertainment and sports districts in the world with the infrastructure and proximity to population centers to support what should be one of the vibrant destinations in North America.”

New Jersey Policy Perspective President Gordon MacInnes was less enthusiastic, noting that the last thing the state should be doing is looking to double-down on its gaming industry.

“With this proposal on the fast track to this fall’s ballot, our only hope is that New Jersey’s voters have better common sense, and a healthier amount of skepticism, than its legislators,” MacInnes said.

The voter referendum comes at a tough time for Atlantic City, where four casinos closed in the 2014 calendar year, leaving the city with eight remaining properties. However, in December, Moody’s Investors Service announced that it expects more Atlantic City casinos to close in the near future.

Voter support for the measure is also up in the air. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll released in June found that a majority of New Jersey residents, some 56 percent, opposed expanding casino gambling beyond Atlantic City.

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