More than 25,000 people turned out and collectively bet $2,480,393 when the Meadowlands Racetrack debuted its first thoroughbred race in 1976, according to the track’s Web site. Within three years the track was able to draw as many as 41,155 racing fans for its thoroughbred and harness meets.
But in recent years attendance at Meadowlands races has rarely cracked 5,000. Last year average daily attendance was 3,556, a 13 percent increase over 2007. The only prop keeping Meadowlands Racetrack and Oceanport’s Monmouth Park upright is $30 million in annual aid from the state.
To boost attendance – and tourism dollars in the region – the Meadowlands Liberty Convention and Visitors Bureau and others want to modernize the racetrack by adding video lottery terminals (VLTs).
Essentially slot machines, VLTs have already proven lucrative for New York’s Yonkers Raceway, which has lured away many North Jersey racing fans, partly because of the popularity of VLTs. Yonkers Raceway has 4,200 VLTs.
Without slots, local tourism officials believe Meadowlands Racetrack will fold.
Many in the local tourism industry believe slots are essential to increasing tourism in the region and to saving Meadowlands Racetrack, which is part of the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford.
“What have we been doing over the last 10 years while all of our neighboring states have been cleaning our clock?” asked Jim Kirkos, CEO of the Meadowlands Liberty Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’ve watched Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York systematically steal our gaming and horse racing business, right from under our nose! I don’t know how you save horseracing. I don’t have the answer. But all the other states around us are saving horseracing by adding VLTs. So, why wouldn’t the same be appropriate for us?”
Meadowlands gaming: growing or going?
The 15-member Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, established by Gov. Jon Corzine earlier this year, is exploring strategies to keep Meadowlands Racetrack in business, and VLTs are among the options being examined.
There’s just one catch: Atlantic City’s gaming industry isn’t enthusiastic about gambling competition upstate – and the gubernatorial candidates are listening.
In a recent gubernatorial debate, and in several published interviews last week, both Corzine and Republican opponent Christopher Christie expressed support for maintaining Atlantic City’s gambling monopoly.
Corzine, a Democrat, told the Press of Atlantic City, “I believe in the franchise that we have in Atlantic City.”
Christie told the Bergen Record, “I think Atlantic City is priority number 1. It has to be because of the investment we have there and the importance of Atlantic City to that region.”
Independent Christopher Daggett is the only gubernatorial candidate who has said that he’s open to adding slot machines to Meadowlands Racetrack.
Investment in the Meadowlands
These sentiments don’t sit well with Kirkos.
“The candidates are talking about the critical investment that’s been made in Atlantic City,” he said. “The first thing I’d say to the candidates is, what about the investment that’s been made in the Meadowlands? Because that’s pretty substantial as well.”
Atlantic City’s gambling industry has taken its own hits during the recession. Last week Kirkos conceded that revenue at Atlantic City’s 11 casinos fell about 5 percent over the last year, and thousands of gaming industry jobs have been lost.
“I recognize that Atlantic City is bleeding,” noted Kirkos. “But he knife in the heart isn’t from VLTs in the Meadowlands. The knife in the heart is Yonkers, Philadelphia, Bethlehem, and Delaware.”
Controversy postpones convention
The Visitors Bureau abruptly postponed its annual mDEST convention last week to come up with a strategy to counter Atlantic City’s opposition to slots in the Meadowlands.
“[D]ue to a number of evolving circumstances, we must postpone mDEST,” read an e-mail sent out to people who had registered for the convention. “Our decision is based largely on the content of our next…listening session which includes a substantial focus on a highly sensitive political topic: the place of racing in New Jersey’s tourism and economic development strategies.”
MDEST had been scheduled for last Tuesday. It has now been pushed back to Jan. 26, 2010.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is expected to issue its report on ways to save Meadowlands Racetrack next summer.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.