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-- Anjalee Khemlani

MANALAPAN, NJ -- November 3, 2016 -- The clock is ticking down the minutes for supporters of the ballot question on North Jersey casinos, which according to recent polls is predicted to be dead on arrival.

But the group behind the Meadowlands idea is hoping for another shot, despite rolling back a media campaign earlier this month.

Although New York is awarding casino licenses throughout that state, including approving Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Guralís bid for upstate New York, the group believes it can recoup revenues lost to the Empire State and Pennsylvania ó especially because both states have seen significant profits from casino taxes, compared with what has been collected in Atlantic City.

But there are several hurdles, including transportation, media marketing from competitors and the legacy of Atlantic City, for the group to overcome.

A panel of supporters including Gural, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Belleville), Meadowlands Regional Chamber CEO Jim Kirkos and Monmouth County horse farm owner Anthony Perretti, as well as group spokesman Ron Simoncini, president of Axion Holding Company, sat with NJBIZ to discuss the upcoming ballot question.

NJBIZ: What do you think about the campaign by those opposing the casino, specifically Trentonís Bad Bet?

Jeff Gural: We ran, essentially, a stupid campaign, because we were running a positive campaign, saying this would benefit the people and Atlantic City. We were up against basically negative ads, saying you canít trust the politicians. You have the New York guys who intend to keep this money in New York and basically then funnel it back to Malaysia. So, thatís the main funder of this. The other group ... Atlantic City, who idiotically bought into what they were fed by the politicians down there that this was bad for Atlantic City. Only one of five casinos in Atlantic City funded the (opposition) campaign. If I could have gotten my message out there, if we could have spent $30 million and I could have gone on TV and said, ĎPeople, do you understand that Caesars is ripping you off, and they basically pay the state of Pennsylvania (more)?í People would be so angry at Caesars and would vote for this.

Ralph Caputo: Weíre being outmanned, in terms of resources. The losers will be here, the people of New Jersey, not the people that want to keep that money where it is (in New York and Pennsylvania). They are spending $35 million to $40 million; thatís what they make in a week.

Jim Kirkos: They want to protect their interests, which are outside New Jersey. The people that would have supported a Ďyesí campaign, the minute the legislation was introduced (limiting bidders to those in Atlantic City), they became Ďnoí voters because they were pushed out.
Ron Simoncini: And they donít even get to the point where they say itís paid for by Malaysian people. If only New Jerseyans could get to the point where they could see that some other guy is trying to capture what should be ours and used to be ours, they would vote yes. Nobody is even getting that.

NJBIZ: What is your response to some of the recent polls showing the question lacks support?

JG: Itís 100 percent the canít-trust-Trenton campaign to blame. (Based on projected revenue potential) I doubt it will be a failed project. The (opposition) took advantage of the fact that people are furious at their politicians. It was a perfect storm.

RC: This should have gotten on the ballot last year. It would have gotten the attention, we would have been able to educate the electorate about it. This got smashed with all these other things (like Bridgegate and the Transportation Trust Fund).

NJBIZ: Why should the Meadowlands be the spot for the casino, considering transportation barriers? Isnít the success also contingent upon if American Dream opens?

JK: I think itís safe to say American Dream is no longer an if, but a when. Do we have some more work to do to with linking this region together? Absolutely. Have we come a long way in adding mobility options? Absolutely. Weíre only 10 years since the Secaucus transfer (station) and itís a game-changer.

RS: What weíre saying here is, the casino does for this facility what the racetrack did for it 40 years ago. We built a racetrack, then we built the stadium, we built the arena, we built the aquarium, we built the science center, we built the stadium at Rutgers (University), we built the Boardwalk Hall again ó that one racetrack did all that. Why is this spot so magical? Because thereís 18 lanes of traffic in, itís served by a train and itís in the epicenter of 10 million people. This is a pure business issue. We have an underutilization of what was the No. 1 multivenue entertainment district in the world.

The Super Bowl is a great example. During the Super Bowl, the top seven functions happened in New Jersey. So, when you are looking for a place that has the capacity to draw people ó Manhattan, the widest avenue has four lanes; we have 18 into one place. We are built to accept traffic.

JG: If it gets approved, theyíll have to put a train here that runs every 30 minutes from Penn Station.

NJBIZ: What about the anticipated competition from casinos in New York? Wouldnít they be pulling from the same market you expect at Meadowlands the way Atlantic City lost its market share?

JG: The whole purpose of this, (Senate President) Steve Sweeney put this out there to rebuild Atlantic City. The politicians are never going to put (a casino) in Manhattan, the theater and hotel people donít want it. The most convenient location from Manhattan is (the Meadowlands).

JK: The Meadowlands sports complex, in a couple of years, will have the ability to drive 50 million people a year to it. At least 30 million for American Dream, another couple of million from MetLife Stadium, if we put a convention center, another 5 million people a year coming to conventions. All of those people, 40 percent of that money is outside new money. We have this fledgling economy, weíve been waiting for American Dream for a dozen years. It will get built and it will open in perhaps 2018. We lost the Devils, the Nets, they took the IZOD Center away.

RC: Atlantic City could have been the Paris of the Eastern Seaboard. They blew that opportunity. It hurts me to say that, but itís true. You will still have to compete, that is true (with casinos in New York) but (offering a variety of activities) gives you the opportunity to attract people to the facility. They (neighboring states) took the money out of our pockets and we are standing idly by and letting it happen. It was a huge mistake to open up the (license bids for North Jersey) only to casinos that are operating in Atlantic City; we should have opened it up to the free market system.

NJBIZ: Part of your argument stems from a need to protect racetrack jobs, which echoes the arguments from Atlantic City about casino jobs. Why does the horse racing industry benefit from a new casino?

JK: The only thing weíve got is (Guralís) $120 million into a new racetrack trying to save the horse racing industry.

JG: If I didnít do that, this place would be dark except for 20 days a year. I was the only one who did what I said I would (in revamping the Meadowlands Racetrack). Our biggest days, and itís stupid, are camel and ostrich racing, and food trucks. These are the things that bring people into the place. Itís frustrating because (horse racing) is an industry that supports a lot of people and the vast majority of these people are not college-educated. There is more money bet on harness racing in the Meadowlands than anywhere in the world.

AP: Because of the economic engine of the Meadowlands Racetrack, New Jerseyís (horse) breeding industry exists. It became the gold standard. Our particular farm bred the top three stallions in the world. When you go around the world, theyíll know (Gural) and the racetrack. Now, the 13,000 jobs in the state ... they cannot be redirected or retrained to do anything else. They will leave the state and go to Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. If this revenue stream comes back in overnight, this business will come back overnight. If the (racetrack) did not exist, we would have no shot of resurrecting our business.

RS: Thereís two things from a pure business angle that weíve talked around so far. One is that every state around us supports their racing industry by supplements from the casino industry. If you canít supplement your racing days, the number of racing days (Gural) gets to have on his track is really important. Because the more days, the more employees; the more days, the more horses; the more horses, the more races; the more races, the more gaming ó thatís both exported and imported ó so having the No. 1 sport in the world, even if its the fifth or sixth, itís in the Top 10, thatís something the state should be taking pride in and reinvesting in.

NJBIZ: If the question does not pass this year, is there a future for North Jersey casinos?

RC: There is always hope for a new strategy. It depends on how close. Itís like a guy who runs for office: If he gets clobbered, heís not coming back.

JG: I guarantee five years from now people will look back at this referendum (if it fails) and say it was a disastrous decision for Atlantic City. (A North Jersey casino) is inevitable. The state is going to need the $500 million we have offered.

JK: Itís beyond me why, at this point in time, with New Jerseyís revenue stream so low, why we wouldnít want to capture that revenue in New Jersey and put that revenue to great use. If this doesnít pass, how will the state support Atlantic City? The state is talking about legalizing marijuana for the revenue and yet we are not going to consider $500 million a year?

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