Christie backs NJ oversight of AC casino district

Spectators watch Lights of Freedom at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., in this July 26, 2003.

July 21, 2010 2:41:25 PM PDT
Gov. Chris Christie proposed a state takeover of services in Atlantic City's casino district, citing the city government's long history of corruption, its decades-long failure to deal with blight and a steady decline in casino revenues and jobs amid growing competition.

The governor on Wednesday also called for the state to get out of the horse racing business, all part of a push to overhaul the state's gaming, sports and entertainment industries.

Christie backed the recommendations of a special panel he appointed, pitching his plan in news conferences in the billion-dollar New Meadowlands Stadium and later in Atlantic City, the primary focus of his proposals.

"Candidly, we've allowed this to go on for too long," he said of the resort's problems. "We see the decline of this industry all around us. You feel it."

Christie also called for closing or selling the state-owned - and financially struggling - Meadowlands Racetrack, selling the underutilized Izod Center, which has lost its main tenants, the NBA's Nets and NHL's Devils, and giving state financial aid to finish the stalled Xanadu shopping-entertainment complex in the Meadowlands.

Christie appointed the task force in February to chart a future for the state's casino and horse racing industries. That panel recommended the creation of a new state authority that would report directly to the governor, and be responsible for safety and cleanliness in and around the casinos.

"Look, Atlantic City is dying," Christie said at the 50-yard line in the new home of the NFL's Jets and Giants. "The question is whether you permit the same doctors to continue to treat the patient or bring in new doctors.

"In Atlantic City, you have had a historically corrupt, ineffective, inefficient local government that has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars it has gotten over the years."

The new authority would take over marketing the resort from the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, which would be eliminated, and operate the city's convention center and Boardwalk Hall, a 14,800-seat concert hall.

The district would be funded by contributions from the casinos, which have already indicated a willingness to participate. But crucial details remain to be worked out, including how much the gambling halls would be asked to contribute, whether the district would have its own police and sanitation departments or whether existing city workers would fall under its authority.

All government aid to the district would have to be funneled through the new authority, which would also have power over zoning, traffic, and attracting developers to the area.

Christie also called for a master plan within a year for the district, including how to make Atlantic City and its famous Boardwalk more family-friendly.

Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small said not all of the governor's recommendations are bad. He said one good idea was the panel's suggestion that projects by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority be restricted just to Atlantic City, instead of spread statewide, as is done now.

"Some things that can be perceived as a negative can become positives," Small said.

Small did not address Christie's lack of faith in Atlantic City's local government. The councilman is awaiting trial in the fall on charges of voter fraud in last year's Democratic mayoral primary, which he lost. Several other councilmen have gone to jail on corruption charges in recent years.

While casino executives are delighted with the proposals, opponents fear New Jersey will lose business to gaming venues in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

In a major victory for Atlantic City, the task force didn't endorse placing slot machines at the state's four race tracks. The racing industry has said it needs slots to stay alive. The casinos have been bitterly fighting the move - even as they paid tens of millions of dollars in subsidies to the tracks in return for a monopoly on slots.

The report calls for the state to pull the plug on its subsidy of the horse racing industry. It called for the Meadowlands track to be sold for $1 to the horse racing industry, which could operate it and pay the state the $2.5 million per year currently paid by the track. The report offers other options for Monmouth Park and the Atlantic City Race Course, but sees little future for Freehold Raceway.

Many of the governor's recommendations will require approval from the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Senate President Steve Sweeney is among a powerful bloc of lawmakers representing South Jersey who have in the past supported measures that focus state resources in Atlantic City. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver is among a group of lawmakers from North Jersey who are likely to oppose proposals that reduce state financing for the Meadowlands.

Sweeney said the report fails to suggest ways to attract new gaming investors and restore the state's reputation as a premier gaming destination. Oliver said it unfairly concentrates New Jersey's scarce economic resources in Atlantic City.

Oliver said the governor faces an uphill battle getting the proposals through the Legislature.

Two South Jersey lawmakers, Sen. Jim Whelan of Northfield and Assemblyman John Burzichelli of Thorofare, will lead public talks beginning next month to review the recommendations. The goal is to pass legislation that helps ensure the long-term viability of the state's struggling gambling and entertainment industries by the end of the year.

Christie also endorsed providing $875 million in state financial help for the Xanadu project, saying the $2 billion project has come too far to abandon. It is not certain whether the complex's much-maligned exterior color scheme - a mismatched melange of lime green, brown, beige and turquoise panels - will have to be replaced as a condition of receiving financial aid.

"It is clearly the ugliest building in New Jersey and perhaps the United States of America," the governor said. "But it is still a $2 billion investment."

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Associated Press reporter Angela Delli Santi in Trenton contributed to this report.


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