Atlantic City has minor benefits as a meetings destination. Outside of that, it serves as a Titanic-like metaphor for corruption and poor tourism planning.
New Jersey’s seaside gambling resort will require some tough decisions from the state’s next governor, including whether to end a state takeover, and whether to allow casino gambling in other parts of the state.
Gov. Chris Christie’s administration took over Atlantic City’s assets and major decision-making power last November.
The Republican governor said the city either can’t or won’t make the tough financial decisions to get its budget under control (it has nearly a half-billion dollars in debt as five of its 12 casinos have closed since 2014). But many city residents say the state has usurped their political rights and is eyeing prime assets like a water utility and vacant land that can be sold off.
And although it went down in flames last November, a plan to expand casinos to other parts of the state is sure to resurface soon.
A look at how the candidates stand on the issues:
The Issue: Whether to continue or end the state takeover of Atlantic City
Democrats Phil Murphy, Raymond Lesniak, Jim Johnson and John Wisniewski all say they oppose the state takeover and would end it as governor.
Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive, promised Atlantic City residents in November he would end the takeover. He promised to send “a SWAT team from Trenton” to help the city, not dominate it.
State Senator Lesniak voted against the state takeover, and says he would end it as governor.
Johnson, the former Clinton administration official and attorney, told an Atlantic City audience, “The folks at Trenton, who have done such a great job with our school systems and elsewhere, have decided they’re going to impose a solution. That’s not the answer.”
Wisniewski, an assemblyman, called the state takeover “nothing more than yet another Christie attempt to hand out plum governing positions to friends and top donors.” He said the state should encourage the development of Atlantic City as the East Coast’s leader in environmental science and renewable energy.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a Republican, said, “I’d immediately evaluate the takeover and end it as soon as possible so that Atlantic City can govern itself.”
Jack Ciattarelli , a GOP businessman, said he preferred that Atlantic City file for bankruptcy, which he said would have removed politics from the day-to-day governance of the city and helped it reduce its nearly $500 million debt. He said he will assess the situation upon taking office and decide whether to continue the takeover.
The Issue: Whether to allow casinos beyond Atlantic City (NOTE: Because a statewide referendum on the topic was defeated last November, the question cannot be put back before voters until 2018 at the earliest)
Lesniak supports allowing one new casino at Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City. He would require its developer to invest at least $4 billion, and would send $200 million of its revenue a year for 10 years going to an Atlantic City Development Corporation with local citizen representatives to help redevelop Atlantic City and increase its appeal as a destination resort.
Murphy supported last year’s referendum that would have allowed construction of two new casinos in northern New Jersey “as the potential developers were ready to agree to a tax rate that would have made a sizable investment in Atlantic City.” He continues to support a casino in north Jersey as part of a statewide plan to create jobs.
Johnson opposes allowing casinos beyond Atlantic City “because voters already overwhelmingly rejected it in November.” He says the state should focus on more promising areas for economic growth.
Wisniewski also opposes north Jersey casinos “as they only help billionaire developers siphon money out of Atlantic City. This would further diminish the economic vitality of the region.” He proposes making the city a cruise ship hub, with trips beginning and ending there.
Guadagno opposes casino expansion “so long as it will hurt Atlantic City’s revival.”
Cittarelli said he opposes casinos outside Atlantic City, but left the door open a crack to allowing a small “boutique” casino in north Jersey “only with the most perfect of circumstances,” including Atlantic City significantly reducing unemployment, stabilizing its finances and remaining the state’s entertainment capitol.
In a speech in Bergen County last month, Cittarelli declared, “I support casinos in North Jersey. Anyone north of (Routes) 78 or 80 ain’t going to Atlantic City anyway, so what’s the problem with having North Jersey casinos?” The type of small casino he would allow is not what state lawmakers and casino industry officials propose. They envision a full-scale resort costing at least $1 billion, and some proposals cost five times that amount.
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Photo credit: The exterior of the Borgata casino, and its non-gambling Water Club hotel in Atlantic City N.J. On Thursday, May 4, 2017, Borgata owner MGM Resorts International announced it will open New Jersey's 21st licensed internet gambling site later this year. Wayne Parry / Associated Press