Casino ex­pan­sion fail­ure could be boon for At­lantic City

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - STATE NEWS - By Wayne Parry

Casino ex­pan­sion through­out the North­east has been blamed for much of At­lantic City’s strug­gles, and New Jersey’s first at­tempt to cash in on those same ex­pan­sion ben­e­fits seems des­tined to fail.

But that fail­ure could mean a win, at least tem­po­rar­ily, for At­lantic City. Many casino and south­ern New Jersey busi­ness lead­ers fear the re­sort town could lose up to three of its sur­viv­ing casi­nos if in-state com­pe­ti­tion is au­tho­rized in a statewide ref­er­en­dum next month.

At­lantic City casino and busi­ness lead­ers held a rally Thurs­day against the ex­pan­sion pro­posal, which is trail­ing badly in polls thanks partly to more than $11 mil­lion spent by in­ter­est groups against the ref­er­en­dum. Those groups in­clude casi­nos and unions in New York and At­lantic City.

“If they al­low this to hap­pen, we will be done down here,” said Shari Schugar, a cock­tail server at the Tropicana casino. “We get so much of our busi­ness from north Jersey.”

“It would dev­as­tate us,” added her co-worker Joann Lardiz­zone, who has served drinks at the Tropicana for 33 years. “So many peo­ple came here to find a good job to raise a fam­ily. New Jersey should help us, not hurt us.”

The Nov. 8 ref­er­en­dum comes as At­lantic City’s casino in­dus­try con­tin­ues to shrink. In 2006, when the first casino opened in neigh­bor­ing Penn­syl­va­nia, At­lantic City’s casi­nos took in $5.2 bil­lion. By last year, that had fallen to $2.56 bil­lion, and five of the city’s 12 casi­nos have gone out of busi­ness since 2014, most re­cently the Trump Taj Ma­hal, which closed Oct. 10.

Sup­port­ers say north­ern New Jersey casi­nos are needed to re­cap­ture gam­bling dol­lars be­ing lost to neigh­bor­ing states. New gam­bling houses have been added in New York, Penn­syl­va­nia and Mary­land re­cently, and Con­necti­cut and New York are con­sid­er­ing fur­ther ex­pan­sion. In par­tic­u­lar, the north­ern New Jersey casi­nos are aimed at head­ing off a threat from a pos­si­ble casino in Man­hat­tan. Mas­sachusetts and Rhode Is­land are con­sid­er­ing casino ex­pan­sion, as well.

The ref­er­en­dum doesn’t say where the casi­nos would go, but pro­pos­als have been floated for casi­nos at the Mead­ow­lands Race­track in East Ruther­ford, where the NFL’s New York Jets and Giants play; Jersey City; and Ne­wark.

Some of the tax money raised from the new casi­nos would go to help com­pen­sate At­lantic City for the ex­pected loss of busi­ness to in-state com­peti­tors. But the tax rate the new casi­nos would pay and how the money would be al­lo­cated have not yet been de­cided by leg­is­la­tors.

The pro­posal is los­ing by a 3-to-1 mar­gin in many statewide polls; in south­ern New Jersey, the mar­gin is more than 9-to-1.

Ron Si­moncini, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of North Stars New Jersey, which sup­ports ex­pan­sion, says heavy lob­by­ing by op­po­nents in­clud­ing the Malaysian-based Gent­ing Group seeks to pro­tect its ex­ist­ing casino at the Aqueduct Race­track in New York. The vote-no camp has tied the casino pro­posal to frus­tra­tion with state gov­ern­ment.

A record $20.8 mil­lion had been spent by in­ter­est groups for and against the ref­er­en­dum as of early Oc­to­ber, and of­fi­cials pre­dicted that to­tal could dou­ble by Elec­tion Day, mak­ing it the costli­est bal­lot ques­tion in New Jersey his­tory.

“The state will be de­prived of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment at the Mead­ow­lands sports com­plex, as well as an op­por­tu­nity to pro­vide needed re­sources for the re­cov­ery of At­lantic City and the re­vival of our horse rac­ing pro­gram,” Si­moncini said. “It is pa­thetic that New Jersey’s self-es­teem has fallen so low as to ab­ro­gate our own in­ter­ests over our frus­tra­tion with our gov­ern­ment.”

At­lantic City Mayor Don Guardian urged hun­dreds of casino work­ers at the rally to make sure the ref­er­en­dum is soundly de­feated.

“What we’re talk­ing about is pro­tect­ing 20,000 fam­i­lies who have some­one who works in casino, and an­other 20,000 fam­i­lies who have some­one who sells prod­ucts or ser­vices to the casino in­dus­try,” he said.

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