Backers of northern NJ casino referendum halt media campaign

People on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ.
Wayne Parry | AP

The high-stakes effort to bring casinos to northern New Jersey was on life support Friday after the major group campaigning for the statewide referendum announced the suspension of its media push.

The referendum has been trailing badly in the polls and was opposed by a coalition of groups, including casino workers in Atlantic City and the local chamber of commerce. The proposed measure would give Atlantic City's current casino operators, including MGM Resorts International, Tropicana Entertainment, Caesars Entertainment and a few others, the first rights to participate in the North Jersey casino development.

The group known as "Our Turn NJ" — the campaign supporting the referendum — conceded the polling data wasn't encouraging for passage of the statewide referendum. The campaign said its chief backers — Jeff Gural, who is the owner of the Meadowlands Racetrack, and former Reebok CEO Paul Fireman — had "reluctantly" suspended the paid media component of the campaign. Fireman has proposed building a casino complex in Jersey City, while Gural has backed a plan to build a Meadowlands casino.

"It doesn't pay to keep spending money," said Gural in an interview Friday, explaining that the campaign's economic benefits messaging wasn't working due to the current political climate in the state. "I was prepared to guarantee $500 million and even that didn't move the needle. There was no message that we could try that could overcome this anti-Trenton message (used by the opposition)."

To date, "Our Turn NJ" has spent roughly $10 million — most of it for television advertising. According to Gural, the opposition has spent about twice that amount.

Even though the campaign has no plans for more television buys, Gural said he still is encouraging people to vote for the referendum because of the economic benefits it will bring for the state. Proponents of the northern New Jersey casino development claim it would create up to 43,000 new jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in recaptured revenue for the state.

"There are deep pockets on both sides of the issue and obviously they are the ones who are fueling a lot of the advertising," said Krista Jenkins, a political science professor and director of Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind Survey. She said the New Jersey market is "a very expensive market" to advertise on TV since it requires the campaigns to tap into the Philadelphia and New York City markets.

She said opposition to the referendum has been "quite widespread across the state — at least from what we've seen. I wouldn't say it's North versus South."

A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Monday showed just 35 percent of people approve of the referendum on the November ballot to allow casinos in northern New Jersey. Another 58 percent disapproved of the measure and there were 7 percent unsure.

The statewide referendum would amend New Jersey's Constitution and allow casino development outside Atlantic City. Specifically, it would allow up to two casinos to be built in North Jersey and require each new license for a casino to spend at least $1 billion.

The Northeast region is currently undergoing a major gaming expansion with the development of at least eight new planned casinos — projects estimated to cost a combined $5.5 billion.

Atlantic City's gaming industry has been struggling over the years with the expansion of casinos into the nearby markets. Casino revenue in Atlantic City has fallen by more than 50 percent from the 2006 peak when a dozen casinos generated combined revenue of $5.2 billion. Last year, the city's eight remaining casinos produced combined gaming revenue totaling around $2.5 billion.

Opponents of the casino development in northern New Jersey have pointed to an economic study showing it could result in the loss of as many as 30,000 jobs to the Atlantic City region.

"Although 'Our Turn NJ' signaled they will suspend their media campaign, we will continue to fight any and all efforts to siphon dollars and jobs out of South Jersey," Deb DiLorenzo, chairwoman of the "No North Jersey Casinos Coalition, said in a statement. "Messrs. Gural and Fireman have underestimated the voters who understand that their claims are overblown and that no amount of tax dollars coming back to Atlantic City will offset the devastation two new casinos in North Jersey will cause South Jersey."

In June, Fitch Ratings warned that expansion of gaming outside Atlantic City could lead to as many as four additional casino closings.

MGM Resorts' Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa is the largest casino property operating in Atlantic City and produces monthly gross gaming revenue roughly double its nearest competitor, Harrah's Atlantic City. In the year-to-date period through August, Borgata's gross gaming revenue, or GGR, rose 4.4 percent while Atlantic City's overall revenue during the same stretch was up just 0.2 percent. That said, Borgata's monthly revenue during August fell 7.8 percent, lagging the city's overall decline of 6.7 percent.

MGM Resorts completed the purchase of Boyd Gaming's 50 percent stake in Borgata on Aug. 1, and then turned around and sold the real estate to a REIT known as MGM Growth Properties.

MGM had no comment for this story.

"In terms of the referendum, we've been on the sidelines on this," MGM Resorts Chairman and CEO Jim Murren said during the casino company's earnings call on Aug. 4 in response to an analyst's question. "What our challenge is, though, we would certainly be the leading contender to win one of those potential billion-dollar resort opportunities in North New Jersey, given our presence in New Jersey already, our licensing there, and the dominance that Borgata has, we would be, no doubt, the lead horse."

Still, Murren said there were still too many unknowns, such as the tax rate of new casinos and other matters including the final legislation.

"We don't have enough facts right now," he said. "We are taking a look at it, though. And looking at how does that potential fit within the strategic goals of MGM Resorts going forward. We are going to have an unbelievable resort in the D.C. area with National Harbor. We've got our Mississippi Gulf Coast property."

MGM's $1.3 billion resort casino in National Harbor, Maryland, is expected to open in December. MGM also is developing an $800 million casino in Springfield, Massachusetts.

One recent standout in Atlantic City has been Tropicana, with the property posting a 6.3 percent rise in GGR during August following July's nearly 14 percent increase. Year-to-date, Tropicana's revenue is up 5.7 percent.

"Tropicana continues to grow in the difficult Atlantic City market because we recognize the importance of continuing to invest in our property," Tropicana Entertainment President Tony Rodio said in a statement to CNBC. "Over the past five years, Tropicana has invested over $150 million in capital to significantly upgrade both our gaming and non-gaming experience."

Another major player in Atlantic City is Caesars Entertainment, owner of three properties including Harrah's Resort. A subsidiary of Caesars, owner of two of those Atlantic City casinos, is currently operating under bankruptcy protection.Caesars is undergoing a $30 million room renovation project at its Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City.

"Caesars Entertainment is committed to Atlantic City," a Caesars Entertainment spokesperson told CNBC in a statement Friday. "We've demonstrated this commitment by investing in a state-of-the-art convention center, room renovations and other upgrades at our Atlantic City properties."