State lawmakers and stakeholders gathered today to debate the merits of building a casino in the Meadowlands, bringing attention to an issue that inspired heated discussion but is unlikely to advance any time soon.
At a hearing hosted by a state legislative panel, the debate focused on whether opening a North Jersey casino would steal gaming revenue from Atlantic City, which already is mired in uncertainty. The South Jersey resort destination is trying to rebrand itself and recover from years of rising competition and declining gaming revenues.
Several lawmakers, including members of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Gaming Committee, stuck to a refrain that a new gaming hall would strengthen the state's position against competition, helping North Jersey retain gamblers now going casinos in Pennsylvania, New York and other states. State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) said the state's casino revenue fund has been cut in half since 2006, to about $230 million, a sign that neighboring markets are wreaking havoc on Atlantic City regardless of a Meadowlands casino.
"Let's stop worrying about competing with each other. We're one state," said Sarlo, who chairs the Senate's Budget & Appropriations Committee. "Let's compete with surrounding states, and right now they're eating our lunch when it comes to gaming revenues."
But Assemblyman John Amodeo (R-Northfield) dismissed claims that another casino wouldn't hurt Atlantic City, where there are signs of momentum, he said. He pointed to the casino industry's new $150 million marketing campaign, strong support from state leaders and a decade of strong capital investment by the private sector.
"This is too critical of a moment to divert our attention and our resources to the Meadowlands when we are on the cusp of real resurgence," said Amodeo, who sits on the committee that hosted the panel. "Our ability to grow or even maintain our current level of capital investment … would be undermined by the presence of a casino at the Meadowlands."
Any plan to build a Meadowlands casino would require a constitutional amendment, which would be put on the ballot under a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Belleville). But such a measure would face strong resistance, as both Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) have pledged to give Atlantic City time to recover before considering a North Jersey gaming hall.
More than 30 people were scheduled to speak at the hearing, although most of the earliest speakers were legislators. The meeting also drew stakeholders from the state's horse racing industry, like Meadowlands Racetrack operator Jeff Gural.
Earlier today, New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority President and CEO Wayne Hasenbalg said it was premature to discuss a North Jersey casino. Hasenbalg, who was appointed to the post by Christie, is among the key figures in the state's effort to boost tourism in the state and help revitalize Atlantic City.
"Right now, all of our efforts are being focused on Atlantic City, and we need to give it a reasonable period of time to see whether all of the efforts that are being made are having an impact," Hasenbalg said after the sports authority's monthly board meeting. "Clearly, less than a year is not enough time to measure that."