Making the News

Press of Atlantic City

Originally Published:Sunday, October 25, 2009

Value of Atlantic City a rare point of agreement in governor's race

By Derek Harper
Press of Atlantic City

TRENTON - The candidates running for governor differ on many issues, but on Atlantic City they largely agree.

Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine, Republican Chris Christie and independent candidate Chris Daggett each has said the state should spend more on tourism. They say it's necessary to invest in the resort at a time when competition from neighboring states is the keenest ever.

And none of the candidates has talked about increasing casino taxes while on the campaign trail.

But that does not address the top issue identified by Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of the gaming consulting company Spectrum Gaming Group.

"The critical issues for the Atlantic City casino industry would be racetrack slots and racetrack slots and racetrack slots," Weinert said.

The resort's casinos are in the second year of a three-year agreement in which they pay $30 million to horseracing interests to stave off the prospect of video lottery terminals being installed in the state's racetracks.

Horse-racing interests have long sought VLTs in order to bolster their bottom line, arguing the collapse of the racing industry would be detrimental to the state. But casinos have chafed at continuing to pay the money as the recession and competition from neighboring states cut into the resort's business.

The candidates each said they wanted to hear what a governor's commission on the horse-racing industry decides next year before they pass judgment on extending the agreement on casinos paying racetracks.

Daggett added that he will await the findings of a governor's study commission before deciding whether or not to authorize VLTs at racetracks.

His opponents have taken stands against VLTs.

In May, Christie said he would veto any legislation that expanded gaming outside Atlantic City, including VLTs. Speaking to Atlantic County Republicans, he said, "The state of New Jersey has an awful lot invested in Atlantic City. We should do nothing to hurt Atlantic City."

Corzine echoed Christie this month, flatly saying "no" to the idea in an interview. He suggested the regional abundance of slot machines means any expansion of gaming, which he opposes, should include a whole host of options.

On other gaming issues, Corzine supports expanding nongaming attractions.

"We have to create a franchise that stands on merits other than just gaming," he said in an interview. "It doesn't mean we have to exclude gaming, but it has to be something bigger and broader."

He has also pointed to legislation signed during his term that streamlined regulations and stimulus legislation that would make it easier for large projects to get developed.

Daggett said his tax plan to extend the sales tax to services would help the resort. Among other things, it would provide $20 million for tourism promotion, about tripling current spending.

Christie also said he supports changing how the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority spends its funds. After an event in Camden this month, Christie said Atlantic City needs to be more of a priority.

Casinos probably hope candidates would support legislation that stimulates further investment in the resort, Weinert said, expanding earlier legislation that provided incentives for developers to expand what the resort has to offer beyond gambling.

However, casinos traditionally have not participated in politics, in part from the longtime ban on direct political contributions as well as the prohibition on casino license holders from serving in top state positions. Casino Association President Joseph Corbo declined comment for this story. But Kevin DeSanctis, CEO of Revel Entertainment, said Atlantic City improvements are paramount. Revel is not a member of the Casino Association.

"For me, it's the basics," DeSanctis said. "It's all about improving what guests or what the tourists would see," including infrastructure and improving Atlantic City's image.

He said he was gratified that the gubernatorial candidates appeared similarly interested in improving the resort, saying, "It's nice to hear how there's a consistent message - they understand how important Atlantic City is to New Jersey's economic health. That's a good thing, and it should give us some comfort."

Michael Pollock, managing director for Spectrum Gaming, said lawmakers historically have not seen Atlantic City issues through a partisan lens, in part because the resort's economic importance is so big and its voter base so small.

The political firewalls helped, Pollock said, because "one of the consequences of that is that issues related to gaming are more likely considered on their merits."

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