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Posted At : May 20, 2009 10:20 AM | Posted By : D McKee
Related Categories: Donald Trump,Harrah's,Penn National,Boyd Gaming,Pennsylvania,Politics,Colony Capital,Atlantic City,Regulation,Economy,Station Casinos
Yesterday, I mis-reported New Jersey state Sen. James Whelan's proposal for downsizing the state's regulatory apparatus. He didn't call for elimination of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in favor of the Division of Gaming Enforcement, merely an unspecified removal of what he perceives as a redundancy.
(Such are the perils of working from memory. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.)
Today's paper has a longer clarification of Whelan's position. He'd like to see a DGE/NJCCC merger, although Gov. Jon Corzine sounds strongly resistant to that and other aspects of Whelan's plan. And, after hearing for years that one of Atlantic City's problems is that it has too few hotel rooms to be destination resort, it's quite a turnaround to hear Whelan advocate a 200-room minimum (like Nevada's), a
150% 60% reduction from the current mandate.
What's certain to paint a target on Whelan's back is his endorsement of aggressive employment of eminent domain to clear out distressed properties and encourage development. That's a real sore point in Atlantic City, where Donald Trump once tried to use eminent domain to push an elderly woman out of her home. (He lost.) Also, imagine how confrontational matters might have become if Pinnacle Entertainment had eminent domain in its holster when it was trying to expand its 'sphere of influence' around the old Sands site and was trying to berate the local real estate market into acquiesence.
But ... we're talking about a casino market where emergency measures are required. Would the city be using eminent domain to obtain property and then offer it around? Or would the city be taking sides, using eminent domain to pressure Citizen X on behalf of Casino Z? As craptastic an idea as eminent domain is, generally speaking, it's a good thing Whelan's put it into play, because this looks like a debate that has to be conducted as Atlantic City decides what its future is going to resemble.
However, Penn National Gaming COO Timothy Wilmott is welcome to put a sock in it, at least as regards his own aggressive eminent-domain advocacy. Penn has basically given Atlantic City the finger, bypassing several opportunities to get into the market, so who cares what its braintrust thinks? I dare them to operate there. I double dare them!
Aw hell, I dare them to do anything besides sit on their $1.5 billion hoard of gold and bemoan the fact that they can't obtain Tiffany properties at Walmart prices. Wilmott probably didn't mean to come off sounding like, "Kick some old folks and small businesses out and maybe we'll build something," but Penn needs to clearly state its intentions in re Atlantic City and stop playing subtextual footsie. Otherwise, any further discussion is meaningless.
But the Missing the Boat Award goes to Casino Reinvestment Development Authority boss Thomas D. Carver. OK, he's probably right when he says, "I don’t think we’re going to see $2.5 billion casinos anymore." The market's not going to support and, at those prices, you're not building for the ROI but the bragging rights.
But then we get: "We may see $400 million facilities."
No, no, no, no, no! Four hundred million smackeroos is roughly half -- I repeat, half -- the budget for a Pennsylvania slot parlor. It's a locals-casino budget ... and not a top-of-the-line locals place, either. Maybe some of those creaky old monoliths along the Boardwalk need to go away but replacing them with a bunch of Aliante Stations is likely to hasten Atlantic City's decline.
What do the city's three top performers -- Borgata, Harrah's Marina and Trump Taj Mahal -- have in common? Significant capital reinvestment, that's what. The numbers do not lie: Customers are not flocking to the places that are run on the cheap. If Carver's line of thinking gains currency, Atlantic City can forget about competing with Pennsylvania and just run up the white flag. What he advocates is tantamount to unilateral disarmament.