By Neil Schulman
Oceanport — Elected officials in the borough are frustrated that central New Jersey, especially Monmouth Park, is being ignored in the battle over whether to allow casinos to be built outside of Atlantic City.
In November, voters will be asked to approve a state Constitutional amendment that allows two casinos outside Atlantic City. Oceanport officials like the idea of casinos, but say that as currently written, it’s bad for the town.
As a result, they’ve been contacted by groups lobbying for both sides.
“Within the last two weeks, both the mayor and I have been reached out to by Our Turn New Jersey, which is the yes side, and Bad Bet New Jersey, which is the no side,” Council President Joseph Irace said at the Sept. 1 Borough Council workshop.
Irace said last year, Oceanport had passed resolutions supporting casinos outside of Atlantic City, as long as there were provisions that the revenue stream helped Monmouth Park. Currently, the plan — which isn’t even part of the vote — only calls for a tiny fraction to be given to horse racing.
“It’s not even close” to what’s needed, he said.
Mayor Jay Coffey said he wasn’t impressed with arguments from either side.
“Our Turn New Jersey – as far as I’m concerned, it should be Our Turn North Jersey,” he said.
A provision in the amendment is that the casinos would have to be more than 72 miles from Atlantic City, as the crow flies.
“Why 72 miles? Is it someone’s favorite football player?” Coffey asked sarcastically. The real reason is because Monmouth Park is 69 miles and Freehold Raceway is 72 miles, and Atlantic City doesn’t want the competition.
But these casinos, slated for East Rutherford and Jersey city, would be less than 14 miles apart. Coffey said he sees no reason why those two can towns take competition, but Atlantic City can’t.
He wondered if Oceanport should pursue “an order to show cause” for that 72-mile limit.
Similarly, the argument given by Bad Bet NJ struck the mayor as outdated. They tried to argue that gambling’s illegal outside Atlantic City.
“I said gambling’s legal outside Atlantic City,” Coffey said. Every state but New Jersey now allows casinos. “We don’t have anyone at our borders which prevents us from leaving the state.”
Many New Jersey residents no longer go to Atlantic City.
Google Maps says that a trip from Long Branch to the Sugarhouse Casino in Philadelphia, Harrah’s in Atlantic City, and Empire City Casino in New York all take about 80-90 minutes without traffic.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Commission reports that the smallest casino in the state took in $30 million in revenue last year, and the most successful took in $389 million. Coffey said that the city of Yonkers received $19.2 million from its share of the revenues last year.
It’s only Atlantic City which is not doing well.
“They’re gambling in droves in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Delaware,” Coffey said.
Where’s central Jersey?
Part of the problem is that this proposal has been largely hashed out by politicians from south Jersey, who seek to protect Atlantic City’s interest, and North Jersey, which is interested in helping cities there.
“Central Jersey just disappeared,” Coffey said. “We don’t benefit at all.”
Monmouth Park, he said, has a large parking capacity, and already attracts people who want to make wagers. Other sorts of gamblers make perfect sense here.
But getting the proposal changed to benefit Oceanport or other central Jersey locations is difficult in Trenton. Senate President Stephen Sweeney is from South Jersey, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is from North Jersey. For a bill to be introduced, at least one of them must give their blessings.
To make matters harder, Governor Chris Christie has shown preference to Atlantic City over the state’s racing industry. Before he took office, casinos there donated roughly $30 million to the tracks to supplement purses, with the understanding tracks would not seek their own casinos.
Following a 2010 report on the state’s gaming industry from a commission run by Jon Hanson, Christie said the casinos no longer needed to help the track. The state still owns the track, but has given the management over to a private group.
“Monmouth Park has taken a hit in the last couple of years,” Coffey said.
Irace said that originally, talks on the new casinos suggested 10 percent of the proceeds would go to horse racing. But that number has slipped down to much less.
Even that amount isn’t in writing. It would be set by the “enabling legislation” written if voters approve the proposal. And with North and South Jersey in control of Trenton, Oceanport isn’t optimistic about what it will say.
“We’re going to have one bite at the apple,” Irace said. If the referendum passes in November “we will never have a casino at Monmouth Park.”
For more Oceanport news pick up this week’s edition of The LINK News.