ATLANTIC CITY – Tax breaks. More lenient gaming regulations. Faster development approvals. A wider expressway. Major airline service. A spiffier Boardwalk.
Local casino executives have a wish list of public sector initiatives they say are needed to protect their $4.6 billion industry against the threat of New York casinos in the next three to four years.
Public officials, both current and hopeful, say they are willing to do their part. Invariably, they agree with gaming executives that Atlantic City must grow beyond its reputation as a one-horse town and become a diversified destination for tourists.
“Walt Disney World was built in a swamp, but they built enough stuff and it became a destination point in its own right. That’s what we should do in Atlantic City,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler said.
Schundler said he is “amenable to tax incentives that would induce direct investment” by the industry.
He further said that eliminating Garden State Parkway tolls would please Atlantic City-bound motorists from northern New Jersey.
Richard McGrath, spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey, said Atlantic City needs more hotel rooms “and more attractions geared toward families.”
“He would want to work with the Casino Control Commission and the casino industry to help the casinos in New Jersey be more competitive in the new gaming environment. At this point it’s premature to be talking about any special tax breaks,” McGrath said.
The New York Legislature last week passed a bill that allows six Indian casinos, including three in the Catskill Mountains, and slots at five racetracks, including two in metro New York City. Gov. George Pataki is expected to sign the bill soon.
Mayor James Whelan said there is no need for a special task force to oversee the broad-based improvement issues in Atlantic City, as the top executives from casino giant Park Place Entertainment Corp. have suggested.
“I think there’s a pretty broad consensus on what needs to be done,” Whelan said. “We need to continue to improve the neighborhoods, we need to expand the hotel room inventory and we need more noncasino attractions.”
Whelan’s challenger in next Tuesday’s election, Councilman Lorenzo Langford, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
“I don’t think the threat of New York coming really changes any of what we need to do other than, hopefully, creating some sense of urgency of what we need to do,” Whelan said.
The industry’s best friend in state government, Sen. William Gormley, R-Atlantic, said Atlantic City must “continue to move forward” with such plans and ideas as the Cordish Co. retail district in center city, a performing arts center and attracting major airline service.
“We have gotten a lot of key infrastructure already in place in terms of the Boardwalk Hall, (Atlantic City) Convention Center, corridor and tunnel,” said Gormley, who has no Democratic challenger. More about Sg Online Casino
“But we need more than that. This is about (hotel) rooms,” he said.
Gaming executives have praised Gormley repeatedly for his most recent industry bill, signed into law during the summer, which gives casinos tax incentives for adding hotel rooms, restaurants, shops and nightclubs.
Gormley said he always will be on the prowl for laws that would provide further incentives for the industry to expand.
“We are going to stay on top of this,” he said.
The Casino Control Commission will continue to listen to the industry and the Division of Gaming Enforcement for ways to make its regulations more efficient, Chairman James Hurley said.
“As time goes by we will be continuously reviewing and amending our regulations with an eye toward making this jurisdiction as business-friendly as we can and still maintain the integrity of the gaming experience here and still have our absolute control of the revenue that’s generated here. We have an obligation under the state, under the (Casino Control) Act, to do that,” Hurley said.