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Atlantic City needs to reinvent itself, says Senate President Sweeney

31st July 2014 12:15 pm GMT

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney has called on all state stakeholders to determine how Atlantic City can “best reinvent itself” after admitting that the city has been relying solely on gambling revenues for too long.

Sweeney said that casino gaming in Atlantic City had been an economic generator for all of New Jersey since 1978, employing more than 40,000 people at its peak.

Gaming revenue reached a high of $5.2bn in 2006 – the year that neighbouring Pennsylvania first introduced casinos – but has since seen revenue fall over seven consecutive years. Last year, Atlantic City’s 12 properties brought in $2.9bn in revenue, its lowest level in 25 years.

“Since its peak, the market for gaming has changed,” wrote Sweeney in an opinion-editorial published on New Jersey newspaper The Record this week. “Convenience gaming has proliferated throughout the United States with casinos in the backyards of one-time day trippers to Atlantic City.

“I have been and will remain committed to Atlantic City’s vitality, having worked to create a tourism district to attract non-gamers and to pass legislation to create internet gaming. But we still see the city struggling to keep casinos open and maintain jobs.”

In September, Trump Plaza is expected to be the third casino to close its doors this year, following Atlantic Club and the Showboat, while Revel Casino is struggling to be sold next month at a bankruptcy auction, which could mean that a third of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos close before the end of the year.

Sweeney said that the future of gaming in New Jersey was “contingent on being able to adapt to a changing market”, citing Superstorm Sandy and the failure of the state to “adequately climb out of a deep economic recession” that have created additional hurdles for Atlantic City.

“That is why it is time we consider whether to give voters the option of expanding gaming outside of Atlantic City in the near future,” he said, while stressing that this did not mean giving up on Atlantic City.

“But Atlantic City is going to have to expand beyond just gaming,” Sweeney continued. “For too long, the city relied almost solely on gambling revenues to keep the engine running. That format was bound to run into problems eventually. We must totally reinvent how Atlantic City bills itself to the world.”

To help achieve that change, Sweeney has called for all stakeholders – representative of working people, business and community leaders, elected officials, the governor – to gather within the next 45 days to determine how Atlantic City can “best reinvent itself.”

“We have already seen vast improvements in the city: The boardwalk is cleaner and safer and entertainment opportunities are expanding. The new mayor, Don Guardian, is pragmatic and knows the future of Atlantic City will mean more than just gaming. But we have to be prepared for the future.”

Sweeney has listed five key components which he believes must be discussed before the question of gaming expansion is brought before voters.

  • The protection of Atlantic City as the premier gaming destination, with any gaming facility outside the city being sited in such a way as to minimize “cannibalization” and constructed as a “convenience gaming” establishment, not a destination resort.
  • A tax rate for gaming outside Atlantic City to be the same as it is for neighboring states: approximately 50 per cent. Of that revenue collected, 50 per cent of it needs to go back to Atlantic City in perpetuity to assist in the rejuvenation and stabilization of Atlantic City.
  • Jobless casino employees to have the right of first employment at any new gaming facility.
  • Current Atlantic City owners and operators who have invested in New Jersey to have the first opportunity to own and/or operate any new facility.
  • Atlantic City government, at all levels, to be transformed and restructured in view of its new mission and the changes Atlantic City is experiencing.

“I made a commitment to allowing reforms to take shape in Atlantic City. I am standing by that commitment, and I am encouraged by the positive steps Mayor Guardian has taken. But failure to think and look forward will mean getting caught on our heels while jobs and dollars continue to leave the state,” Sweeney concluded.

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