The Meadowlands won’t be getting a casino anytime soon. In March 2014, New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney publicly announced that he would block any legislation related to the expansion of casino gambling outside of Atlantic City. This includes creating a full casino in northern New Jersey as well as simply adding slot machines and table games to the Meadowlands Racetrack, creating a “racino” like the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway in New York.
The legislation he blocked was a bill to create a panel to study the effects a casino in Bergen County would have on New Jersey’s economy and job market, focusing on how it would affect Atlantic City’s bottom line. Assemblyman Ralph Caputo was one of the primary sponsors of this bill.
This wasn’t the first time the idea of a casino outside of Atlantic City had been proposed in New Jersey. When the Casino Control Act was passed in 1977, it prohibited casinos from opening and operating outside of Atlantic City’s borders. As the years progressed, New Jersey gamblers and lawmakers questioned whether or not an Atlantic City-based monopoly on legal gambling in the state was the healthiest option for the industry.
By the 1990s, casinos in New York and Pennsylvania began to draw New Jersey gamblers away from their home state. This led to a renewed discussion about creating satellite casinos in the Garden State. The northeastern corner of the state, one of the most densely populated areas in the nation and home to a huge segment of New Jersey’s population, seemed like the obvious place to build the state’s first casino outside Atlantic City.
A Casino for North Jersey?
Supporters point to the droves of New York City and Northern New Jersey gamblers who leave the state to play slots and table games, bringing their money to resorts and racetracks in New York, Pennsylvania, and New England.
“Forget all this online slots, online lottery and all that — let’s just put slot machines in at the Meadowlands and get it over with,” said Senator Richard Codey of Essex County, a longtime supporter of extending legal gambling to the northern half of the state. Along with Assemblyman Caputo and Senator Codey, Senator Paul Sarlo of Bergen County vocally supports this type of development. “The only way to maximize gambling revenues in the state is to have a high-class casino in the Meadowlands,” he said.
AJR-15, The Bill to Study the Market
Caputo, an Assemblyman representing Essex County, drafted the bill to create a panel to study how a casino would fare as part of the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Located in a densely populated portion of northeastern New Jersey, the Meadowlands Sports Complex is home to the Izod Center, Metlife Stadium, the Meadowlands Racetrack and the still-unfinished American Dream Meadowlands, a 4.5 million square foot mega mall that currently stands unoccupied. The Meadowlands are easily accessible from multiple highways that run through the area as well as the NJ Transit train system. The appeal lies in its immediate vicinity to New York City – thousands of potential customers move through the Meadowlands every single day.
When the 2014 Super Bowl was held in Metlife Stadium, more than forty thousand people visited New Jersey for the game. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle questioned whether those visitors would have stayed in New Jersey, rather than visiting New York City, if there had been a casino operating in the Meadowlands Sports Complex. “Would they have spent their travel dollars in this state?” she asked. “We don’t know, because gaming in the Meadowlands has never been seriously considered. This conversation needs to start.”
Caputo’s goal was to ascertain the viability of a North Jersey casino before the current Atlantic City marketing campaign ends, so development could begin in 2016 if it was deemed feasible.
Do AC, says Governor Christie
Governor Christie does not approve of Caputo’s bill. His opposition is backed by various South Jersey legislators.
“I guess if I can send a message to this committee, I would request patience,” said Assemblyman Chris A. Brown of Atlantic County. “We are only two years into this five-year plan, and even that may be an overestimation of the time that we have given Atlantic City a shot.”
The five-year plan Brown referred to is the current aggressive attempt to revitalize Atlantic City and bring back lost profits.
In 2011, Governor Christie kicked off the five-year campaign by signing legislation to create the Atlantic City Tourism District, a modern, family-friendly redevelopment of Atlantic City’s boardwalk and surrounding area. Pouring millions of tax dollars into the project, a master plan for the Tourism District was created, as well as financial incentives for new attractions such as Revel, a luxurious casino and hotel on the northern end of the city’s boardwalk.
Since approving and promoting this development push in 2011, Christie has affirmed that he won’t entertain any discussion of opening a casino elsewhere in the state until the five-year period ended. Many South Jersey legislators and the Casino Association of New Jersey stand with the governor on this issue, agreeing that any energy spent researching or developing casinos in other parts of New Jersey would only take away from the energy that needed to be put toward improving Atlantic City.
Creating a Network to Hold Onto Revenue
“No one here wants to do any damage to Atlantic City,” Caputo reiterated in early 2014. “They can do that themselves. They don’t need your help or my help.” He also acknowledged Atlantic City’s decline. “We can’t bury our heads in the sand and say Atlantic City is going to be fine. Atlantic City is not going to be fine; it’s not going to come back to its original form.”
Caputo and other supporters of a casino in North Jersey say that gamblers aren’t going to be swayed by Atlantic City’s facelift. They want an easy day trip without the tolls and time commitment required for a trip to Atlantic City. Caputo, as well as others, has stated that a casino in the Meadowlands would merely complement the business in Atlantic City, acting with it to keep gambling dollars in New Jersey. That’s the goal – keeping gambling revenue in New Jersey, not destroying what’s already here.
In 2016, We’ll Talk
Right now, any development toward bringing a casino to the Meadowlands, or elsewhere in the state besides Atlantic City, is stalled. Under President Sweeney, the State Senate cannot move forward until the five-year revitalization plan ends. That includes Caputo’s proposed commission to study how one would fare.
“I made a deal, and my word is good,” Sweeney said at a 2014 news conference. “We’ll talk about it after the five years. That’s when we would start having a discussion.”