Hard Rock International and the Meadowlands Racetrack unveiled plans Wednesday for a $1 billion casino at the East Rutherford sports complex, next to the stadium where the NFL's New York Jets and Giants play. Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen, whose company owns 16.8 percent of the project, said it could be open by summer or early fall 2016, provided a voter referendum is approved this fall to amend the state constitution to allow gambling to expand beyond Atlantic City.
With Newark Liberty International Airport just 12 miles away, the casino would instantly become an international destination, he said.
"The new casino would be designed to attract visitors from not only the 14 million adults in northern New Jersey and New York City, but also international travelers, making it a premiere entertainment destination," Allen said.
The casino would be called Hard Rock Casino Meadowlands. It would not include a hotel, but Allen noted there are nearly 10,000 hotel rooms in the Meadowlands region.
New Jersey lawmakers are trying to get a referendum before voters this November authorizing as many as three casinos in the state's northeastern corner. Jeff Gural, chairman of New Meadowlands Racetrack LLC, says this year is the project's best chance.
"If we have to go in 2016, with a presidential election, our message gets lost amid everything else," Gural said. "A commercial in 2016 is going to cost three times what it costs this year. Frankly, I'd rather wait until 2017."
The casino would draw heavily from out-of-state markets that are currently inflicting a beating on Atlantic City.
"We want to bring people back from Bethlehem, bringing back the people in northern New Jersey who now go to Aqueduct or Yonkers," Gural said, referring to the Sands casino in Bethlehem, Pa., and casinos in Queens and Yonkers, N.Y.
Last week at a casino conference in Atlantic City, Sands President Mark Juliano said the northern New Jersey and New York markets are among his casino's prime customer base. Steve Norton, a casino analyst who was vice president of New Jersey's first casino when Resorts opened in 1978, predicted two-thirds of the Meadowlands casino's revenue would come from Pennsylvania and New York.
The casino would have 200 table games and 5,000 slot machines. A giant guitar would dominate its entrance, so highly illuminated that it would be "a beacon in the nighttime," Allen said.
It would include a 2,000-seat concert venue, but Allen also said he and Gural want to discuss the possibility of using the shuttered, state-owned Izod Center arena on the sports complex grounds to stage larger concerts.
Atlantic City leaders have opposed every attempt for lawmakers to even consider legislation expanding casino gambling beyond its borders. Last year, four of the city's 12 casinos shut down, and gambling revenue has been falling steadily for eight years, even without in-state competition.
The casino would pay a 55 percent tax rate on its slot winnings, compared with the 8 percent Atlantic City's casinos pay. Table game taxes have not yet been worked out.
Gural and Allen say their casino could generate $400 million to $500 million a year in tax revenue for the state, some of which would be shared with Atlantic City. Part of that could include the state issuing tax-exempt bonds backed by money from the casino's licensing fees that would provide up to $3 billion worth of infrastructure improvements to Atlantic City, Allen said. Another possibility is dedicating a portion of annual casino winnings, determined by the state, to help Atlantic City.
The question of whether the casino would need to close for part of the day when the Jets or Giants play to avoid traffic problems remains to be worked out, Allen said.