It’s easy to criticize a bold and decisive plan to change the status quo, even when the status quo isn’t getting the job done. But, the alternative—staying the course—is sometimes just not acceptable.
Consider the historic proposal put forth by Governor Chris Christie to drastically change the gambling, horse racing and entertainment industry in the state. One of the most significant portions of the plan has to do with Atlantic City. Christie is proposing that the state of New Jersey take over gambling and tourism activities in the city. It’s no secret that casino revenues have dropped by 25 percent in just the past few years and about 12,000 jobs have been lost during that time. A recent editorial in The Star-Ledger said; “If this keeps up, Atlantic City will soon become Camden East.” Simply put, Atlantic City is not a particularly attractive place for millions of people who have countless choices on where to spend their discretionary dollars.
Just a stone throw from the casinos, the city is pretty dreary. It’s dirty, crime runs rampant, many people don’t feel safe and the local government has a history of corruption and consistent ineffectiveness. Some people will say that the state shouldn’t get so directly involved in Atlantic City and the casino district. I say, what do we have to lose? It’s already going in the wrong direction. Clearly, Christie’s plan could be tweaked, and we have to make sure that the right professionals run the state operated entity that could be responsible for public safety, street cleaning and other aspects of city life.
However, I believe the governor is right in trying to promote Atlantic City as more of a tourist spot for families, comparable to Las Vegas. Too much of the casino take comes from day trippers who hit the slots or the tables and get back on the Parkway at the end of the day. Not enough of them are staying overnight, mainly because they are concerned for their safety. No tourism or gambling site can succeed when too many people see it in this way.
The boardwalk needs to be improved and Christie’s plan calls for new restaurants and theaters. There is even talk about NASCAR coming in. Why not make Atlantic City more like Point Pleasant, or a cleaner version of Seaside Heights where my family spends lots of time on the boardwalk at night.
For those who criticize the Christie plan in Atlantic City, let them speak up now and say how they’d improve it, instead of saying what’s wrong with it, because as I said, the status quo is not a plan that is even remotely acceptable.
Another part of the plan has to do with the wackiness going on at the Meadowlands. The Christie plan calls for getting rid of the IZOD Center and ending all state welfare (I mean subsidies) to the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority. It also argues that the Meadowlands Racetrack and Monmouth Park, two horse racing tracks that have been struggling mightily (the Meadowlands a lot more than Monmouth) would no longer get about $20 million a year from the state to keep them afloat. Christie says that the racetracks should be in private hands because it is too costly to the state at a time when essential services are being cut, rebate checks are dying on the vine, and other essential services like mass transit and community health programs are getting slashed. Simply put, the state can’t afford to subsidize racetracks. This is a classic case where movement needs to prioritize. We need to ask what’s most important to spend our limited resources on. Horse racing may be fun, but it is not an essential service and Christie is right to get us out of that business.
Further, the Sports and Exhibition Authority has blown it big time. They have virtually no credibility any more. They keep begging for state money in order to stay alive and then resist when pressed about opening their books and showing us what’s in them, mainly because they are called a “quasi” government agency. That’s absurd. The Authority’s bureaucracy is bloated and they have proven to be ineffective at what they are supposed to do. Again, we can’t afford having a layer of “quasi” government that is so ineffective. We don’t need them anymore, and for those who say horse racing may die if the state gets out of the business, my response is, isn’t that what the free marketplace is supposed to be about? Competition? Doing more with less? Expanding your market, being creative? Government just isn’t really good at many of those things.
So, while the plan is complex and needs a thorough and candid debate in the legislature and with citizens throughout the state, in my book Chris Christie gets points once again for acknowledging the 800 pound gorilla in the room. He said what we all know to be true, which is that the casinos are struggling mightily and the racetracks are dying. Xanadu? That’s a whole other story for another column, but right now, let the debate begin, because we are running out of time fast. What do you think?