he legislation now awaits the signature of Republican Governor Chris Christie to become law.
The bill potentially paves the way for Atlantic City’s first new casino licenses since Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa opened in 2003. One of the two new gaming halls may be a Hard Rock casino hotel in the city’s Chelsea section.
Under the bill, one developer would have the option of building a small-scale casino that could have no more than 1,858 sqm of gaming floor space and would be required to have at least 200 hotel rooms. Current law requires casino hotels to have a minimum of 500 rooms.
A second developer could build a “staged” casino facility with no more than 2,787 sqm of gaming space and at least 200 hotel rooms, providing it expands to 500 rooms within five years of being licensed.
The Assembly approved the bill 78-0, with one abstention. The Senate voted 32-0. After the Senate vote, state Senator Jim Whelan, who crafted the original legislation, turned to an audience member behind him and gave a thumbs up.
Whelan said he expects Christie to sign off on the bill, noting that no Republicans voted against it Monday. Assemblymen John Amodeo and Vincent Polistina, sponsored the bill in the Assembly. “When all was said and done, this ended up being a very good piece of legislation,” Amodeo said. “I’ll feel better when the governor actually signs it,” Whelan said after the vote. “But I’m happy the legislative process is over.”
Whelan first proposed the so-called “boutique casino” idea about a year ago. The measure originally appeared to be on a fast track to approval but slowed due to amendments in the Senate and Assembly. Legislators’ largest concerns had to do with ensuring that the smaller gaming halls did not become tiny slot parlors with no entertainment offerings.
Casino-industry stakeholders appeared confident that the legislation would not lead to the construction of casino “warehouses.” “If it’s a real good, branded place, if it’s going to bring something new to the table, we’ve always said we would be in favor of it,” said Don Marrandino, president of the four Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. casinos in Atlantic City.
One of the best-known brands in the casino and entertainment business is already prepared to become Atlantic City’s smallest casino. Hard Rock Cafe International has been considered the most serious company to express interest in coming to Atlantic City, provided the restrictions were altered.
The company also has the financial backing of New York-based investment group Och-Ziff Real Estate. Hard Rock officials have said the casino is conceptually planned to be built at the southern end of the Boardwalk, at the Albany Avenue end of the Route 40 corridor. Years ago, the property was the site of the ill-fated Dunes casino, a project that went bust and was torn down after it was partially built. Hard Rock officials did not return several calls seeking comment Monday.
Kevin DeSanctis, whose company, Revel Entertainment Group, is struggling to finish a us$ 2.5 billion casino project, said he supports anyone prepared to invest in Atlantic City but cautioned that the development of smaller casinos should be planned carefully.
“It’s a bit challenged as a stand-alone business model,” DeSanctis said of boutique businesses. “A boutique, by it’s nature, doesn’t have a lot of amenities. When you think about boutique hotels, they’re successful because they’re close to other thriving businesses.”
Asked if he would object to a boutique casino being built adjacent to his unfinished project in the South Inlet, DeSanctis said it would probably benefit his business.
The bill calls for the holder of either small-casino license to deposit 5 % of its gross revenue into a fund that could then be used for expansion and structural improvements in the city. The fund would be overseen by the state treasurer. Funds from the staged casino licensee could be used to expand the casino property.