By Brenda Flanagan
Take one Meadowlands Racetrack, add a Hard Rock casino and you get a racino — the “Hard Rock Casino Meadowlands” — a gambling mecca that’d sit within 50 miles of 14 million potential players. That’s racetrack magnate Jeff Gural’s vision, partnering with Florida-based Seminole Hard Rock. A big draw.
“And hopefully get some New Yorkers to cross over and I think with the Hard Rock brand we’ll also get tourists from Times Square. I think people have been expecting something here,” Gural said.
But it’s not a sure bet, by any means. Any casino project outside of Atlantic City needs the approval of New Jersey voters.
To sweeten the pot, Gural’s offering to pay a 50 to 55 percent tax rate, with some of that revenue dedicated to bailing out the struggling gaming town. His internal polls suggest New Jersey voters would initially vote no.
“But when we explain the issue and say, well, we’re gonna pay a high tax rate, we would generate $500 million a year and we would be giving money to help Atlantic City, hiring people from Atlantic City if they want to relocate, the numbers switch,” Gural said.
“I have absolutely no problem with that question going on the ballot right away,” Gov. Chris Christie said during his Ask the Governor radio show.
Christie’s willing to place a bet on gaming in North Jersey.
“If we could plant our flag firmly in the ground in the northern part of the state, I think that would make the project even more successful. Again, as long as there’s a provision to have some of the revenue used to help Atlantic City and help the workers down there who’ve lost jobs because of the downsizing,” Christie said.
With eight casinos in Atlantic City and two now proposed for North Jersey, the state’s already competing for business with three New York racinos plus seven Pennsylvania gaming facilities. But analysts give a Meadowlands gaming complex excellent odds.
“A northern New Jersey casino would do really well — draw people from other casinos, including Atlantic City, Pennsylvania casinos and New York casinos — but it would be a zero-sum game as a lot of business would be cannibalized,” said Fitch Ratings Casinos Analyst Alex Bumazhny.
“It’s like going into a store — you have sizes for everybody. Some people wanna bet on horses, some want to bet in casinos, so it will work,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo.
To get on this fall’s ballot, Caputo says the gaming referendum would need legislative approval by Aug. 3. Senate President Steve Sweeney says the Legislature will vote next month on bills designed to help Atlantic City. He’s not sure if this election’s auspicious for a gaming referendum.
“Whenever the Assembly’s on top of the ticket, there are low turnouts. So again we’re gonna have to see what’s best because Atlantic City, in my mind, needs this desperately. The state needs the help of adding two casinos,” Sweeney said.
So the race for casino gaming is on amidst a field of fierce competitors. The legislative clock is ticking. The prize, worth billions of dollars.