FANTINI’S FINANCE: North Jersey: Thanks, New York; Thanks, Carl!

Prospects for a casino in northern New Jersey took a giant step forward last week as two events combined to put one or more gaming halls on the agenda in the state legislature.

The odds of a casino rising from the flatlands of northern New Jersey have increased dramatically thanks to the New York casino selection committee and Carl Icahn.

The selection committee decided for a variety of reasons not to award a license to one of the casino applicants in Orange County, which is near New York City and borders populous North Jersey, a major Atlantic City feeder market.

That, some observers quickly opined, was like New Jersey dodging a bullet. Further, it means that New Jersey now can put a casino in its northern region without fear of competition next door.

Meanwhile, Carl Icahn has agreed to take over and operate Trump Taj Mahal despite failing to reach a deal with the UNITE HERE labor union. Such as agreement was the price required by state Senate President Steve Sweeney for pushing a $150 million relief bill for the Taj.

However, one can bet that North Jersey legislators have a price their own price for voting to give away millions of dollars to Icahn and the Taj.

The deal is simple old political horse-trading: We’ll help you save an Atlantic City casino if you help us get a North Jersey casino.

Atlantic City casinos have long opposed casinos in North Jersey, not wanting to lose their monopoly on that market of many millions of people.

But that resistance has begun to crumble as it has been made obsolete by casinos opening in Pennsylvania and New York taking players away from North Jersey, and as Atlantic City has grown more desperate for state assistance.

The argument today is simple: Atlantic City has lost that monopoly to neighboring states and a North Jersey casino now would do more to recover lost revenue than it would take business away from AC. And North Jersey legislators are willing to sweeten the deal by diverting some revenues from a new casino to help Atlantic City.

Further, North Jersey legislators are becoming impatient. They approved Governor Chris Christie’s program to revive Atlantic City and watched as it has made little difference so far.

Christie could get the full five years he’s sought, but a referendum next November to amend the state constitution to allow casinos outside of Atlantic City would come in year four. Trading off one year for the aid being given to Icahn and AC would be a small, even immaterial, concession.

Historically, talk of a North Jersey casino has been limited to the Meadowlands racetrack west of Manhattan.

That changed recently when the former head of Reebok, Paul Fireman, proposed a $4.6 billion, 95-story complex in Jersey City overlooking Manhattan with a casino as centerpiece.

And if a referendum passes and a competitive bidding process is adopted for a single casino in North Jersey, you can bet it will bring out all the big names with multi-billion dollar proposals.

Imagine what Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson and Genting would propose for the rights to the only full casino resort among the 20 million people in greater New York City. But some are saying there could be multiple casinos in the region, which could become a free-for-all.

It would give a whole new meaning to the term Big Apple.

Articles by Author: Frank Fantini

Frank Fantini is principal at Fantini Advisors, investors and consultants with a focus on gaming.