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Meadowlands lawmakers call for action on North Jersey casinos

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State lawmakers from the Meadowlands region Tuesday renewed calls to legalize casino gaming in North Jersey, but cautioned that it's only the next step in a complex process.

Those calls came at a forum hosted by the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, a week after the group unveiled a proposal to reinvent the Meadowlands Sports Complex. The pitch called for up to four new casino spaces integrated with a new convention center and hotels, along with the recently revamped Meadowlands Racetrack.

That reopened a dialogue about whether to expand casino gaming beyond Atlantic City, which would require a constitutional amendment authorized by voter referendum.

“Before we get into the site plans and the details, the Legislature needs to act first,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), one of the three District 36 lawmakers on hand Tuesday for the chamber’s forum. “And they need to go to the voters and create, in my opinion, two gaming facilities in North Jersey — one in Jersey City, perhaps on the waterfront, and right here at the Meadowlands.”

Aside from the chamber’s plan for the Meadowlands, buzz has surrounded former Reebok CEO Paul Fireman’s pitch to build a $4.6 billion, 95-story casino on the Jersey City waterfront.

The discussion came as Atlantic City braces for the closure of three casinos and the loss of more than 6,500 jobs by mid-September, fueled by rising regional competition and a seven-year slide in gaming revenue. The continued struggles of the city’s gaming industry have stoked calls to end its longtime monopoly, which was to last until 2016 under a deal between Gov. Chris Christie and lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer questioned the wisdom of a deal he said was made as “a political decision” some five years ago — even if it was widely supported at the time. Stakeholders should have recognized that “an area that is so geographically far away from a population concentration probably was not going to make it,” he said, referring to the South Jersey resort town.

“(We) were right to give resources to Atlantic City,” said Schaer (D-Passaic), speaking at the Homewood Suites in East Rutherford. “Where we were wrong, I would suggest, is that we didn’t look at this area and say that we couldn’t do both at the same time.”

He added that lawmakers “will come together on this issue, I believe, but we need the governor to come along with this issue as well.”

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Meantime, Assemblywoman Marlene Caride (D-Ridgefield) said it was critical to examine how the chamber’s plan would impact the surrounding area before it moved forward. That means determining how it will impact and benefit businesses such as hotels and restaurants that could serve visitors to a revamped sports complex.

“We have to use Atlantic City as a model, not as to how to prosper, but as to how to make sure that we don’t fall into the rut that they fell into at the end,” Caride said. “We have to make sure that when we open up the Meadowlands, when we start moving forward, we don’t forget the surrounding towns.”

Sarlo, who last month introduced a bill to authorize the referendum to expand casino gaming, also stressed that the New York Giants and Jets “need to have a say in the matter as we redevelop the sports complex.” The NFL teams, which occupy MetLife Stadium, were locked in a two-year legal battle with developer Triple Five that threatened to thwart the American Dream Meadowlands retail and entertainment project.

That’s all part of the plan now that it’s been unveiled, said Jim Kirkos, CEO of the Meadowlands chamber. But he said the group’s updated vision plan was first developed internally — without consulting other stakeholders — because “we did not want it to contain any one entity’s self-interest. … We thought about this from a purely holistic view.”

Still, Kirkos said, time is of the essence. He noted “the convenience (gambling) market is driving past us and they’re going outside of our borders and the surrounding states.” And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “has got his eye on the ball” when it comes to building casinos just over North Jersey’s borders.

“If we act too late, they will do it, and we will lose the entire market,” Kirkos said.
“We’ll lose the ability to put a convention center, to put any gaming here. And that’s why we’re raising this conversation now.

“That’s why it’s at the urgent level. We don’t want to be where Atlantic City is now, a few years from now, trying to figure out what we didn’t do in advance, why we didn’t think about this in advance.”

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Joshua Burd

Joshua Burd

Josh Burd covers real estate, economic development and sports and entertainment. Before joining NJBIZ in 2011, he spent four years as a metro reporter in Central Jersey. His email is joshb@njbiz.com and he is @JoshBurdNJ on Twitter.

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