A summit airs problems in New Jersey's gambling industry

Bikers riding on the Boardwalk. Lawmakers, executives, and union and business leaders attended Friday's hearing atthe convention center. "We are in a race here to save Atlantic City," Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester) said.

ATLANTIC CITY - In a jam-packed room at the Atlantic City Convention Center on Friday, casino executives, lawmakers, union leaders, and businesses whose livelihoods are directly linked to the struggling gambling industry here said they supported Gov. Christie's plan to make over the city.

But for it to succeed, they urged lawmakers in Trenton to provide adequate resources and political muscle.

"I welcome any assistance from the state," Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford said at the Legislative Gaming Summit, sponsored by Democratic members of the Legislature.

"I don't look at this as a takeover," he said. "A special district being carved out doesn't have to be adversarial. What's important is where we go from here."

The meeting was the first of a series of hearings throughout the state to generate ideas for Democratic gaming-panel members to determine the future of gaming and, perhaps, horse racing in New Jersey.

The hearing focused exclusively on reviewing the plan announced by Christie on July 21 to overhaul Atlantic City. The plan is based on recommendations by a state commission that Christie assembled to revitalize South Jersey's biggest economic engine: its struggling casinos.

It calls for the creation of a state-controlled Atlantic City Tourism District, streamlining casino regulations, keeping all gaming revenue collected by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in Atlantic City, and better marketing of the city as a brand, among other things.

Many of the recommendations need legislative approval.

"We are in a race here to save Atlantic City," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester).

About 300 people attended the hearing, mostly in the early part of the day to hear casino experts and economists.

There was a hard-to-miss tension between the northern and southern halves of the state, both among the panel members and their line of questioning, and with applause in the audience.

The vast majority of the room was filled with construction and trades workers, whose leaders lamented the loss of casino construction jobs and the dearth of new investment in Atlantic City and the Meadowlands.

"In one word, abysmal is how I would describe it," testified Michael Capelli, of the New Jersey Regional Council of Carpenters. "My guys are facing upwards of 30 percent unemployment."

Many erupted into cheer when State Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat from Bergen County who heads the Senate budget panel, ripped Christie's proposal to eliminate a $30 million horse-racing subsidy and his refusal to expand gambling to other parts of the state, namely adding slot machines to the Meadowlands.

"Instead of new casinos in other states, why not a new world-class casino in the shadow of New York?" said Sarlo, whose district includes the Meadowlands. "We could keep the revenues in New Jersey.

"I don't understand why we can't do this."

Mark Juliano, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., which owns the three Trump casinos in Atlantic City, and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, had an immediate response.

He said expanding gambling beyond the Shore would be like "putting a bullet right through Atlantic City."

Juliano said he supported Christie's plan to exercise more control over Atlantic City's casino district.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D., Union), who is leading the charge in Trenton to add sports betting and Internet gaming in New Jersey, said Jersey casino companies, with properties in Las Vegas, were blocking sports betting because they did not want competition in that sector of gaming.

Sarlo questioned the commitment of casino operators to Atlantic City, pointing out that some, such as Harrah's Entertainment Inc., were opening gambling halls across the border in Pennsylvania.

"I agree we need to get those 36,000 [casino] jobs back to 50,000," he said. "But doesn't it send the wrong message when Harrah's Entertainment, which is heavily invested in Atlantic City, is at a ribbon-cutting for table games at Harrah's Chester?"

Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.