nterested developers include Hard Rock Cafe International, which has discussed building a us$ 450 million casino in line with its themed restaurants. The proposed casino hotels must offer a minimum of 200 guest rooms, rather than the previous minimum requirement of 500. One of the two new licenses will be a “staged casino” license, which means developers may open a 200-room property on the condition they will expand it in five years.
The new category of casinos is the first to be legalized since New Jersey voters approved casino gambling in 1976. At the time, lawmakers allowed for an unlimited number of large casinos. But because of the economic recession, developers and lawmakers say the billion-dollar cost of building a full-size casino has been too much f
or investors to risk.
Supporters of the bill hoped to gather in Atlantic City to witness the legalization of a new category of casino. But in the end, the governor took the action without public fanfare, signing the bill in his office at about 5 p.m., staff said.
“This bill will provide a boost to the engines of Atlantic City and the regional economy, bringing badly needed jobs to the area and signaling the re-emergence of world-class entertainment,” Christie said in a written statement. “While this is an important step in meeting our commitment to revitalize Atlantic City as a premier destination resort, we have more work to do in laying the foundation for growth in this critical area of our economy. I look forward to continuing to work with our partners in the Legislature and Atlantic City to implement a comprehensive plan to bring the job creation, capital investment and regulatory reform needed to renew Atlantic City and strengthen our economy.”
Christie’s approval heightened speculation that a deal on two other landmark Atlantic City bills may be near. Facing delays in negotiations regarding bills on casino deregulation and the creation of a state-run tourism district in the resort, Christie said Dec. 20 that he would hold off signing the “boutique casino” bill until he saw a deal on the other legislation.
Talks continue between the Christie administration and the legislative Democratic majority. Christie is a Republican.
Whelan saw Wednesday’s signing as a precursor to the announcement of a deal. “A public signing would have been nice, but not necessary. What’s necessary is enacting this law,” Whelan said. “We’ve been close to agreement on the other bills for a while, and the framework is in place. I’m very happy the governor did not wait, but acted on this to keep this industry competitive.”
Christie had just one day left to sign the bill or flout a 45-day deadline, according to Statehouse rules. Republicans from southern New Jersey praised the governor’s action on the bill, which underwent revisions before gaining bipartisan support.
In March, Whelan proposed allowing four small casino properties, but later reduced the number to two newly constructed casino hotels, gaining the support of Assemblymen Vincent Polistina and John Amodeo. “There didn’t need to be four, but in these tough economic times, it’s valuable to allow developers a way to keep investing in Atlantic City,” Polistina said. “We also wanted the focus to be on new construction.”
The Republicans’ insistence in September on limiting the new licenses to newly built properties excluded The Chelsea Hotel from a possible bid. “In the end, I felt this bill was perfected,” Amodeo said. He reiterated criticism of the Democrats’ handling of the tourism-district legislation, saying, “This bill shows why you should never rush a bill through the Legislature.”
After Christie’s hesitation in signing the bill, some casino executives said little Wednesday night about the change. Hard Rock International said it would have “no comment at this time” about the bill.
Bob Griffin, CEO of the three Trump Entertainment Resorts casinos in Atlantic City, did not directly comment about the legislation but stressed that his company is “very supportive of the governor and legislators’ efforts to revitalize Atlantic City.”
The most enthusiastic response came from Don Marrandino, president of Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat Casino Hotel owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp. Marrandino characterized the legislation as a catalyst for more jobs and tourism in Atlantic City, ultimately expanding the market for the entire gaming industry. “I think that if a company comes in and adds great amenities that are really a must-see experience that drives more visitation to the market, then I’m happy with that. I think it’s good for the city,” he said.
A new Hard Rock casino would diversify the market and help re-energize Atlantic City by drawing younger customers who are loyal to the music-themed brand, Marrandino also said. “It brings a younger, cool dynamic. I suspect they would come in with a number of cool amenities,” said Marrandino, who ran the Hard Rock casino in Las Vegas from 2001 to 2003.
In Atlantic City, where city officials have voiced concern about the governor’s vision for the resort, reaction was mixed. “I think it’s fantastic,” City Council President William “Speedy” Marsh said. “Anything that could encourage development here is good to me.”
However, Councilman Dennis Mason was hesitant to applaud the bill’s signing. He said he believed it meant New Jersey’s separate plan to create a state-run tourism district within Atlantic City was a done deal.
City Council and Mayor Lorenzo Langford have openly opposed the state’s plan to overhaul tourism in Atlantic City, primarily because the bill strips the city of some of its local authority. Langford could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
For casinos looking to apply for licensure immediately, Whelan noted the governor’s proposal for casino regulatory reform and increased state oversight of tourism sites would potentially change the licensing and planning process. But he said, “The first thing any developer needs is a set of building plans. Knowing what the law says now means developers have a clear definition of what they can do, so they can get moving.”