Whether permanent or “pop-up,” New Jersey lawmakers are looking for ways to bring casino gaming to the Meadowlands in East Rutherford. For some Secaucus residents, it could mean more tourists and traffic; for others, it could mean a night of gambling only a few minutes away instead of a drive.
Proponents for the measure say that casino gaming will make the state more competitive against casinos in neighboring states like New York and Pennsylvania, while opponents say that the presence of casinos in the north will hurt Atlantic City’s economic recovery and will cost the state jobs, and revenue.
Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) has authored a bill, ACR53, to establish casinos in Bergen County (where East Rutherford is located) by 2013.
Bringing casino gaming to the Meadowlands requires a constitutional amendment. With major opposition from Gov. Christopher Christie and state Senate Pres. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), it is unlikely voters will see a statewide referendum on the November ballot.
Tapping into a market
Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr. (D-33rd Dist.), a Hoboken resident, chairs the Assembly’s Regulatory Oversight and Gaming committee and advocates the amendment. He said last month in a statement that “expanding gaming options to the Meadowlands could strengthen New Jersey against that competition that has already lured customers away.”
Ramos has been a lead advocate on the issue and recently convened a hearing on July 19 in the Meadowlands to hear testimony from both sides.
Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson/Bergen), a Secaucus resident, testified at the hearing in favor of bringing casinos to the area.
“Atlantic City is always going to be Atlantic City.” – Vincent Prieto
Prieto said he felt that there was a “universe” of clientele from the metropolitan area that the state is not capturing. These individuals are referred to as “convenience gamblers.”
“It is amazing, the amount of people that come here,” noted Prieto. “People that aren’t going to Atlantic City would come to the Meadowlands…we are next to New York City.”
He said that the Meadowlands district has 8,800 hotel rooms. Secaucus has 13 hotels that are at 90 percent occupancy year-round, with potentially two more hotels on the way.
“We think a casino here would generate about $350 million in tax revenue for the state and all 12 casinos combined in Atlantic City don’t even generate $250 million, “said Jeff Gural, chairman of the New Meadowlands Racetrack, during the hearing held in July.
Eyes on Atlantic City’s turnaround
Christie opposes casino gaming in the Meadowlands and has said that Atlantic City’s five-year plan for economic revitalization should come first.
Christie has touted a $20 million publicity campaign with the slogan “Do AC,” which launched earlier this year to draw more tourists to Atlantic City. He has also has supported the recent opening of Atlantic City’s first new casino in nine years – Revel casino. But Atlantic City’s total revenue for casino gambling has continued to decline, according to Bloomberg news reports.
Christie told reporters in Trenton on July 19 that the conversations about bringing casino gaming to the Meadowlands are a “waste of time.” He said that even if he supported the measure, there was little chance that Sweeney would put forth any such legislation. Sweeney, who represents southern counties, is also behind solely focusing on the economic turnaround plans for Atlantic City. Any bills on the issue would have to be posted by him for votes in the legislative chamber.
North vs. South
Prieto said that the issue has been framed as the north against the south and that thinking the measure is detrimental to Atlantic City reflects “the old way of thinking.”
“Atlantic City is always going to be Atlantic City,” said Prieto. “It has something Mother Nature gave to them – the beautiful beach.”
“Atlantic City has huge, huge hotels, night clubs, [and] all the big stars. Atlantic City is equivalent to Las Vegas,” said Secaucus Councilwoman Susan Pirro, who supports casinos in the area. “I don’t think that is something they are looking to have here in the Meadowlands.”
She said she felt the casinos would be good for the economy.
Secaucus Councilman Gary Jeffas said that he would want to look further into the issue to determine how it would impact residents. He was concerned about the impact a casino would have on traffic in the area.
Prieto said that the area is already saddled with traffic and that casinos would offer revenue to help improve road infrastructure.
Pop-up as middle ground?
Given the slim chances of a permanent casino going up soon in the Meadowlands, state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) last month in a radio interview proposed the idea of setting up a temporary “pop-up” casino in the Meadowlands Sports Complex during the 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium.
Weinberg told CBS radio “putting something right in the area where most of the people will be could attract more visitors, bring more income to the state of New Jersey, and give people who are coming in for the Super Bowl another venue to enjoy.”
However, the measure would still require a public referendum.
Assemblyman Tim Eustace last month said he intends to propose a pilot project over the next four years to create a new policy for gaming in New Jersey, one that will benefit all of New Jersey without hurting the state’s long term goals of revitalizing Atlantic City. He said pop-up casinos would do away with speculation about the impact casinos in the Meadowlands would have on Atlantic City.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.