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Meadowlands casino push should be delayed for up to six years, racetrack operator says

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CLOSEMeadowlands casino push should be delayed for up to six years, racetrack operator says
Meadowlands casino push should be delayed for up to six years, racetrack operator says

A rundown of how many casinos are in New York, and recent developments. John Brennan/northjersey.com

Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural said he is still “100 percent” certain he will be able to one day add a casino to the $100 million new grandstand he opened in East Rutherford in 2013.

The overwhelming defeat last fall of a referendum on bringing casinos to North Jersey has led Gural to rethink his strategy. Instead of trying to revive the ballot question in 2018, Gural said he is willing to wait until New York State adds three new casinos in the southern part of the state -- currently anticipated to happen in about six years.

“I'm never going to support another referendum that I'm not confident is going to win, because I think if it loses again, it will be virtually impossible to come back a third time and win," Gural said while participating on a panel at the East Coast Gaming Congress in Atlantic City last week.

“I’d rather wait until New York is opening their new casinos in probably the outer [New York City] boroughs or Westchester [County], at which point I think [New Jersey] voters will say, ‘Wait a second…..”

Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen sas he is committed to opening

Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen sas he is committed to opening a casino in the Meadowlands. (Photo: Michael Karas/northjersey.com)

In 2013, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that allowed for four new upstate casinos, two video lottery terminal parlors on Long Island, and for a moratorium on casinos in New York City and Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam counties until at least the end of 2022.

Gural said that so-far underwhelming revenue figures for the three New York casinos that opened in the past year – including his own Tioga Downs casino in Nichols, N.Y. – might tempt that state’s Legislature to shorten the moratorium.

"You’ve got to build these casinos where people live,” said Gural, a wealthy real estate developer who played a lead role in the efforts to bring the new casinos to New York State. “You can’t build in Nichols, New York, and expect so many people to come. It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

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Gural announced his intention in 2015 to partner with Hard Rock International to build a $1 billion casino adjacent to the new Meadowlands Racetrack grandstand.

But the casino plan was defeated when a ballot question that would have allowed casinos outside Atlantic City was rejected by voters by a 4 to 1 margin.

Both Gural and Hard Rock CEO JimAllensaid after the vote that they hoped to get a North Jersey casino proposal back on the ballot at the earliest possible opportunity – November 2018.

“I think we have to study the market – whether it’s two years or six years, we’ll look at the political situation and see how Atlantic City is doing,” Allen said at the gaming conference on Thursday. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin says it's possible

Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin says it's possible that a North Jersey casino proposal could be back on the ballot in 2018. (Photo: Amy Newman/northjersey.com)

Gural said he realizes that having a monopoly on casino gambling in the greater New York City area for a few years before the Empire State caught up could presumably bring massive profits.

“It would be nice, but the reality is that voters won’t go for it,” Gural said.

While Manhattan often is mentioned as a potential mother lode for casino revenues, Gural – based on his decades of real estate experience in the borough – continued to dismiss the possibility on Thursday.

“They will never put a casino in Manhattan,” said Gural, who believes the city’s powerful hotel lobby would be able to exert its influence on the Legislature.

Dennis Drazin - who operates Monmouth Park for the state's thoroughbred horsemen and who stands to benefit from a purse supplement from new casinos in the state - had a different view.

"I don't think that what New York does will really impact the opinion of New Jersey voters," said Drazin. "What we really need, first of all, is having three key players all working together: the governor, the state senate president, and the assembly speaker.

Then they need to push a strong vision for more casinos, explaining what the tax rate would be and all the other details so people know what they are voting for," added Drazin. "It doesn't matter if we go back in two years or six years; what's more important is a divided front."

From left to right: state Senate President Stephen

From left to right: state Senate President Stephen Sweeney; Governor Christie; and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. (Photo: John Ensslin/northjersey.com)

After missing deadlines to land a question on the statewide ballot in 2014 and 2015, the question finally was put before the voters last year.  It would have allowed two casino licenses to have been chosen at any site from New Brunswick to Mahwah.

It also banned potential bidders from outside of Atlantic City, which was initially opposed by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who noted that prominent Las Vegas operator Steve Wynn had expressed preliminary interest in making a bid for a North Jersey casino. The ballot question included a provision that could have redirected at least $150 million annually to Atlantic City redevelopment projects, a provision designed to tempt South Jersey politicians and voters to support it.

Republican Assemblyman Chris Brown and his Democratic counterpart, Vincent Mazzeo, the Atlantic County officials who were a part of Thursday's panel, reiterated their belief that passage of the referendum would still have done more harm than good because it would cause more Atlantic City casinos to close.

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, opposes ending

Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, opposes ending the city's statewide casino monopoly. (Photo: Chris Pedota/northjersey.com)

Gural and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, repeatedly were challenged during the panel by Brown, Mazzeo and Borgata casino CEO Tom Ballance.

Caputo, a former Atlantic City casino executive and North Jersey casinos supporter, conceded that the final version of the ballot question was "faulty."

Ballance, though, insisted that the margin of defeat last fall shows that voters statewide oppose ending the monopoly Atlantic City has on casinos regardless of the exact language of a subsequent ballot question. He added that while Borgata - by far the most lucrative casino in the city - could withstand such competition, some of his six rivals in Atlantic City could not.

Allen said his market research shows that voters are inclined favorably toward a casino being built at the non-residential Meadowlands Sports Complex.

A spokesman for Paul Fireman, the former Reebok chief executive who had sought to build a multi-billion dollar casino and resort on the grounds of his Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, did not return a request for comment on Gural's sentiments.

Gural and Fireman initially funded a North Jersey coalition to push for approval last year, but they folded their campaign last summer after New York City casinos and Resorts in Atlantic City spent $15 million on a "Trenton's Bad Bet" campaign, which attempted to tie the ballot question to the public's highly unfavorable opinion of state elected officials.

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