The Blame Game: The 13th Annual East Coast Gaming Congress

Mum was the word regarding a Meadowlands “Boardwalk” racino at the aptly themed “Leadership in Challenging Times” 13th Annual East Coast Gaming Congress. Still, any mention of New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine addressing an audience will always pack a conference hall, and such was the case at the Atlantic City Convention Center this May 19, where Congress organizers Michael Pollock of the Spectrum Gaming Group (and publisher of Gaming Industry Observer), Cooper Levenson Attorneys at Law, and SOSH Architects provided Corzine a platform from which to field questions regarding the Governor’s Commission he created on March 5, 2009, to study the horseracing industry in New Jersey.

According to Corzine, the commission will identify, assess and recommend possible funding solutions for horse racing after 2010, as well as propose long-term funding solutions that will promote the future sustained viability of the horseracing industry. “The horseracing industry plays an important role in New Jersey, from preserving open space to attracting visitors to our state,” Corzine said.

And, like music to this particular audience’s ears, he added, “I have named representatives from both the horseracing and casino industries to this commission because it is essential for the gaming industry to work together to find a long-term solution that will allow both racing and casino gaming to thrive in New Jersey.”

However, the two casino executives he named to the 15-member Governor’s Commission are Mark Juliano of Trump Hotels and Casinos and David Satz of Harrah’s, both whose properties on the Boardwalk resemble a casino museum, filled with old relics of outdated console slot machines complete with faded faceplate glass.

Earlier in the day, during a seminar titled “The East Coast: Regional Competition,” Dan Nita, Mid-Atlantic regional president of Harrah’s Entertainment, placed blame for the demise of Atlantic City’s gaming revenues primarily on the shoulders of the newly opened Pennsylvania casinos. This fell on the heels of a seminar titled “The East Coast: The View From Wall Street,” which despite strong moderation by Joseph S. Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, consisted of panel members who were clearly neither slot players nor smokers. If they had been, they too would realize that it is the modern machines and the wide variety of new slot games that the Pennsylvania casinos offer (and that the Atlantic City casinos do not) that is luring players away. Patrons line up to play a machine on promotion days in Pennsylvania not because they prefer its jurisdiction, but because they don’t have to hear the echo of their own feet as they wander through the prohibited smoking areas of Atlantic City’s Boardwalk casinos in search of (nonexistent) new games.

Therefore, despite Delaware North’s inability to secure financing for a racino at Aqueduct (which will surely happen sooner than later, considering the success of Empire at Yonker’s raceway), one still has to wonder whether the Governor’s Commission will recommend making a racino at the fertile Meadowlands a top priority. Based upon the success of Pennsylvania’s racinos, such as Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, one would figure that they ought to be in the mix of potential casinos licensed to run a Meadowland’s “Boardwalk” racino. And yet, according to Mitchell Etess, chairman of Mohegan Sun, “That will never happen.”

The bottom line here is that until the current licensed casino operators in Atlantic City understand that it’s the slot games themselves that can make the biggest difference in where a slot player decides to play, and not just how many remodeled restaurants a casino has to offer, any talk of a Meadowlands “Boardwalk” racino will have to wait for the Governor’s Commission recommendations.

Perhaps what is really needed among all the so-called experts on the commission is an actual slot player. Or even a gaming trade conference panel made up of slot players, which even Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., president and CEO of the American Gaming Association, agreed is “a good idea.” There is no doubt, then, that a well-oiled machine like the Spectrum Gaming Group, together with Michael Pollock and his Gaming Industry Observer, are already a step ahead of everyone in considering such a panel in the future. It makes you wonder if perhaps it’s about time the players who pay for all this have their voices heard, too.

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