A referendum on the ballot in November to amend the New Jersey State Constitution to allow gambling in North Jersey has been nothing short of controversial this election season, and according to recent polls, has been largely unpopular. Currently, the State Constitution restricts casino gambling to Atlantic City, but Our Turn NJ, a public relations campaign whose organizers have business interests in casino expansion in North Jersey, have been lobbying residents to change that.
In September, Our Turn NJ suspended its “paid media components of the statewide campaign,” according to a statement issued by the group after polling data showed a lack of support for the ballot. “The current political climate in New Jersey and voters’ concerns about the lack of details relating to the effort have proved overwhelming,” the statement said.
Jeff Gural, who owns Winners Racetrack in Bayonne and Meadowlands Racetrack, is one of the two businesspeople who launched Our Turn NJ. Gural spoke on the issue of gaming in North Jersey at a Bayonne Chamber of Commerce event at Winners on Wednesday, September 19.
Gural discussed the political atmosphere that precipitated the referendum’s waning support as well as the potential economic benefits if it were to pass. According to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released in September, 58 percent of voters disapprove of the referendum, while 35 percent support it.
Gural argued that North Jersey is a prime market for casinos while lamenting his campaign’s likely defeat. He said that casinos in North Jersey would bring the state $200 million per year and provide jobs, both in construction and in the casinos. With Atlantic City’s economy reeling, Our Turn NJ argues that new revenue will make up for the lost revenue from Atlantic City’s failed casinos. It also argues that the new revenue will alleviate the heavy financial cost of the state bailout that resulted from the city’s budget deficit, which Governor Chris Christie signed in May.
“Where is the money coming from to rebuild Atlantic City?” Gural asked his guests at Winners. “They don’t even have enough money to pay their bills without a state bailout.”
Paul Fireman is the other businessperson leading Our Turn NJ. He is founder and former chairman of Reebok and hasproposed a $4.6 billion project that includes a 95-story building that would house a hotel, casino, and apartments connecting Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City, which he owns and is one of the most expensive courses ever built.
Sam Pesin, President of Friends of Liberty State Park, opposes Fireman’s proposal on the grounds that it would hinder public access to Liberty State Park. “It would cause inevitable and unavoidable traffic jams on non-winter weekends,” Pesin said. “The casino would have a devastatingly negative impact on people who want to enter and enjoy this priceless urban open space park.”
Pesin, the son of Morris Pesin, who helped facilitate the creation of Liberty State Park in 1976, is focused on the voters of Jersey City because Mayor Steven Fulop pledged to disallow a casino in Jersey City if the majority of residents within its borders vote against the referendum, even if it were to pass statewide.
“The current political climate in New Jersey and voters’ concerns about the lack of details relating to the effort have proved overwhelming.” – Our Turn NJ
The 50-mile rule
“Here’s the issue, and it’s not really complicated,” Gural said, indicating a PowerPoint presentation on market research. “The vast majority of our customers come from within 50 miles [of the casino or racetrack].” He pointed to a map with 50-mile radiuses drawn around every casino in the region. Parx Casino and Sands Casino in Pennsylvania both have about seven million people within 50 miles. The Aqueduct Racetrack and Casino in Queens has 14 million, as does Gural’s own Meadowlands Racetrack. Atlantic City’s 50-mile radius, however, only has about 1.5 million people. “Clearly,” he said, “if you were to start over again nobody in their right mind would say let’s build casinos where the fewest people live in New Jersey.”
Changing business model
Gural is not strictly in the casino business. He owns racetracks: two in New Jersey and one “racino” in New York, where slot machines accompany track betting. He also owns more than 100 horses. He said that 90 percent of his business is done off-track.
“Over time, horse racing lost its luster,” Gural said. “Casinos opened, lotteries, TV became 200 channels, internet, you name it…so 90 percent of…our product is done either at another racetrack or by someone sitting at home on their phone or a computer.”
As a result, Gural is focusing on building smaller facilities combined with some elements of a casino model, such as slot machines. He is also hoping that the lack of support for gaming in New York City would open the door to casinos in North Jersey. “I don’t think gaming will ever come to New York City,” he said. “The hotel people don’t want it; the restaurant people don’t want it.”
He hopes a new governor in 2017 will see things differently than Governor Christie.“[The new governor] is going to do what other governors do,” Gural said, hoping that the new governor’s aversion to raising taxes will make potential gaming revenue streams more valuable. “But this time we’re all going to get behind the idea, and make it clear we need the [revenue].”
But right now, all signs point to the ballot being dead on arrival, and Gural mostly blames his own campaign. “The way I see it, we’re going to lose,” he said.“We should never have lost. We had a lousy campaign, but they had a brilliant campaign,” he said, attributing his opposition’s success to its appeal to the public’s lack of faith in government.
“They came up with a brilliant campaign not criticizing the idea of having a casino in the Meadowlands, just criticizing the idea that if you give money to the politicians that…somehow it won’t get spent.”
“My biggest concern right now is we’re going to lose by a lot, and then it’s going to be harder for the politicians to come back at it,” Gural said. “So that means I might have to wait six years until the casinos open in New York City. I’m not happy about it, but if I have to, I will. I just have to live six more years, so I’ll be happy about that, too.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at email@example.com.