The casino industry needs a winning streak. According to Moody’s, with the exception of Las Vegas, the gaming industry is in the red. But even so, more and more cash-strapped communities are betting big on gambling. In New York, municipalities are competing to be one of four potential spots developers build on. In New Jersey, Paul Fireman, the billionaire founder of Reebok, is seemingly unfazed by the growing number of bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City and pushing plans for a mega-casino.
But despite a lot of talk about Fireman’s multibillion-dollar plan – and promises of tens of thousands of jobs – the details are hard to come by. Fireman’s company isn’t talking. Steven Fulop, the Mayor of Jersey City, also didn’t respond to requests for interviews. The only local politician who would talk was the pro-casino Democratic state senator Ray Lesniak.
“When I saw this, I said ‘Wow,'” Lesniak says, referring to a shiny, full-color brochure promoting the benefits of the new casino. But while he let a reporter thumb through the brochure, he only allowed access for the briefest of moments. “I’ve already shown you too much,” he says. “It’s just something for us to consider as legislatures.”
The project, says Lesniak, is expected to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue a year. But while a brief look at the brochure revealed a lot of pretty pictures and big numbers, few details were apparent. Even so, Lesniak says the new casino would transform New Jersey into a global destination, drawing tourists from as far as Singapore and even those from just across the river. He thinks visitors to Manhattan would be interested in taking a trip to New Jersey for the planned convention center, hotel, racetrack and the world’s largest Ferris wheel, where they’d be able to look back across to New York City.
“Can you imagine being on this Ferris wheel and overlooking the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty? People will put this on their bucket list,” said Lesniak. “It’s an experience that does not exist anywhere in the world,” he says. “Everyone who comes to Manhattan – this will be on their list. This will be a must-see.”
If the project does goes ahead, it will be built next to Liberty State Park. It’s not yet on the radar of many community members, but Yvonne Balcer, a local activist and retired teacher, has concerns.
“You’re talking about maybe 100,ooo people coming to the city,” she says.
Balcer says she’s worried about everything from traffic capacity to the unsavory types gambling might bring, even prostitution. She says Jersey City isn’t prepared to handle large crowds, and, as a taxpayer, she doesn’t want to foot the bills.
“The developers don’t put in the infrastructure at all; I mean water, I mean sewage, I mean roads. Those are the things done on the backs of taxpayers. It’s not done on the backs of developers at all,” she says.
It’s hard to know who would foot the bill for what, or how the new project might affect Atlantic City’s financially troubled casinos. Alex Bumazhny, director of gaming, lodging and leisure at Fitch Ratings notes that even though there’s talk of Atlantic City sharing in the revenues from the new project, the plans are uncertain and the Northeast is already oversaturated with casinos.
“Having another casino in northern New Jersey would be pretty detrimental to Atlantic City,” he says.
The discussion remains theoretical at this point. Plus, there is another issue that looms larger than fuzzy details or potentially clogged roads. Gambling in New Jersey is illegal, outside of Atlantic City. And the next time a vote can take place to change that issue is next year.
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