If numbers truly don’t lie, then the terms and tone of George Zoffinger’s remarks at the Nov. 8 New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) meeting reflected a hard truth.
Zoffinger, the NJSEA president, announced a round of budget cuts that may result in the loss of 40 jobs by early 2007. These staff cuts, which are designed to reduce employee costs by $3 million a year, will trim the number of employees at the Meadowlands sports-complex centered agency by close to 20 percent.
The cost saving strategy also includes ending the NJSEA’s participation in the state pension plan for future employees, as well as raising employees’ contributions to their health care coverage costs. To reach the $3 million cost-cutting goal, Zoffinger noted that all of the approximately 220 full-time employees at the sports authority will be offered buyouts until Jan. 5. If the buyout program does not achieve the set goal, layoffs will soon follow.
Cuts a consequence of competition
The planned cuts were announced in the light of a series of setbacks experienced by the Meadowlands sports complex. Racetrack profits have dwindled from $22 million in 2002, the year Zoffinger took over as agency president, to close to $11 million.
The publicly owned Giants Stadium is about to be replaced by a privately owned sports venue co-owned by the Giants and Jets.
Finally, the future of Continental Arena is up in the air as the New Jersey Nets basketball team gets ready to move to Brooklyn and the New Jersey Devils hockey team prepares to move to a new arena in Newark being built a mere 12 miles away.
Zoffinger reflected on the challenges that the Meadowlands face in the near future.
“There are a number of uncertainties over the next few years,” he said. “The stadium revenue will be going away when the new stadium is taken over by the teams. The reality is that we’re not doing anything different that any other well-run company in America. We’re being proactive, and I think that’s the right thing to do.”
The NJSEA president later discussed how changes in how people bet have affected the business of the Meadowlands. “The way people gamble today is just different,” he said. “They gamble on the Internet, they gamble on the phone, and they gamble by going to the casino. The demographic of the person who came to the race track is dying.”
Zoffinger also looked down the Turnpike to the arena rising in downtown Newark.
“Everybody has seen the fact that the Newark arena is going forward. We feel very strongly that we can be competitive, and our arena is going to stay open,” he said, providing a list of 15 examples of areas around the country with multiple arenas in close proximity to each other. Zoffinger went further in stating his belief that Continental Arena can survive.
“I firmly do not believe that a competitive building can be built for $365 million,” he said, a reference to the Newark project’s cost. “We have 1,500 people in the Meadowlands who depend on this place for jobs. Our business plan shows that we can operate efficiently and with a profit when the Devils are no longer here.”
Mayor Booker breaks the ice on the Newark arena
Less than a mile from where the Devils are going, Newark Mayor Cory Booker paused to comment on the status of both arenas.
“The two arenas probably could survive, but they might not be making the money and profit for their various communities that they should,” he said. “The reality is we should be looking for a win-win. We have to find ways to make the Newark arena incredibly successful. The Continental Arena is already losing money. Why not find a better use for that property to give us that win-win for everybody?”
Governor Jon Corzine remains on the fence regarding the future status of the Continental Arena. Booker offered a suggestion for him to find his way off.
“I think the governor should find the best use of the land for Bergen County and the surrounding area, and find ways to support the development of our arena,” he said.
Booker was not always a supporter of the arena. He strongly criticized his predecessor, Sharpe James, for committing $210 million in municipal funds towards the arena, particularly in view of the serious urban problems that Newark must deal with. However, Booker explained why he has changed his tune.
“I was against the arena for a long time,” he said. “But the Devils came to the table and gave us more incentives that went beyond the project that focus on helping people in the community, including help with job training, children’s programs and minority hiring. All of these things make me more of a fan now in support of the arena.”
If the two arenas do go through a period of prolonged co-existence, Booker pointed to what he believes are the competitive advantages of a Newark arena.
“We already have the transportation infrastructure to bring people in,” he said. “The Meadowlands is a good area, but the reality is that we have a train station right next to our arena. We have an arts and cultural zone, with the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the Newark Museum and the Newark Public Library all right in the area. Newark is going places. The new arena will be a state-of-the-art facility that is all about the future. The Continental Arena at this point is becoming more of a dinosaur.”
When asked if Newark’s gain is ultimately the Meadowlands’ pain, Booker put the issue of competing local arenas within a larger state perspective.
“We have to start thinking in terms of regionalism and how the regions of our state can support each other,” he said. “I look forward to Newark being a supportive engine of opportunity for the whole state of New Jersey and not looking at how we can compete against each other, but how we can help each other.”