- Associated Press - Friday, June 3, 2016

RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) - With voters evenly split on whether to approve two new casinos in the northern part of the state, a push to get voters to vote yes on the proposal got underway Friday in the Meadowlands region near New York City, where one of the proposed casinos could be built.

Political, business and labor leaders held a news conference in Rutherford to begin to shape public opinion on the proposal, which will be on the November ballot.

It will ask voters whether to approve casinos in separate counties in northern New Jersey, with part of the gambling revenue going to help Atlantic City redevelop itself.

Speakers said a successful campaign will stress the benefits for all of New Jersey and play down a north-south divide.

“This is the right thing to do for the whole state,” said state Senate President Steve Sweeney. “What this is trying to do is recapture the dollars of residents who won’t go to Atlantic City anymore.”

Jim Kirkos, president of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the vote-yes camp will stress one central message: that casinos in north Jersey benefit the entire state. Up to $200 million a year in revenue from the new casinos would go to Atlantic City to help it become known as a diversified, family friendly resort that is less dependent on gambling.

A Fitch Ratings report on Thursday warned that north Jersey casinos could wipe out up to half of Atlantic City’s eight casinos.

That was similar to a report commissioned by the main opposition group, No North Jersey Casinos, that warned that three to five Atlantic City casinos could go out of business if faced with in-state competition. That group is comprised of casino, business and tourism officials from Atlantic City, Atlantic and Cape May counties.

“We can build and rebuild two great tourism destinations in New Jersey - here and Atlantic City,” said Kirkos, the Meadowlands business leader. “How great for New Jersey would that be? This is not about north and south. We can have both.”

Democratic Sen. Paul Sarlo, who represents the Meadowlands region, acknowledged there will be well-funded opposition.

“There will be those who oppose this and who will spend a lot of money to oppose it,” he said. “It will be a campaign. But this is an investment in New Jersey. That’s the most important message we need to get out to voters.”

The ballot question does not specify locations for the casinos, other than that they be in two counties at least 72 miles from Atlantic City.

The most commonly mentioned proposals are at the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, where track operator Jeff Gural and Hard Rock International want to add a casino to the track complex, and in Jersey City, where footwear magnate Paul Fireman proposes a casino resort costing up to $5 billion.

Key details remain to be determined, including the casino locations and the rate at which they would be taxed. Sweeney and Sarlo would not commit to deciding and publicizing those details through legislation before the November vote. Both said they remain under consideration.

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Follow Wayne Parry at https://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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