American Dream Meadowlands Nears Completion And Brings Casino Talk With It

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More than a decade’s worth of lawsuits, political bickering, and missed deadlines involving a massive Meadowlands shopping and entertainment project gave way on Tuesday to a veritable “love-in” among elected officials, project developers, and construction union leaders.

Governor Phil Murphy’s pre-Labor Day rally and press conference at the East Rutherford site of American Dream Meadowlands — born as Meadowlands Xanadu in 2002 and rebranded almost a decade later — underscored the fact that Xanadu, as we once knew it, is fading away.

I don’t just mean the whiff of failure that long had accompanied this project. I mean that the much-maligned color scheme has mostly been replaced by shades of white and gray, plus glass.

Does orange make you think of snow?

The all-shades-of-orange indoor snowdome that commuters have eyed for years remains untouched, but it’s looking more and more out of place as the hunter green of what in the mid-2000s was to be a Cabela’s outdoors store, for example, disappears as part of the enormous construction effort going on at the site.

American-Dream-snowdome
The decade-old, still-unopened indoor snowdome at American Dream Meadowlands is starting to look out of place at the retooled site

The core of Xanadu — the 2.3-million-square-foot structure — has survived, but now has a new neighbor: a 639,000-square-foot indoor water and amusement park.

The whole thing — except the water park, which will take a few extra months — is slated to open next spring. And believe it or not, it will. Finally.

Or as labor leader Rick Sabato put it, “There were a lot of naysayers about this project — and now we’re proving the naysayers wrong.”

One former naysayer at times was Paul Sarlo, the state senator who has represented the Meadowlands district for the entire length of the 16-year saga.

“The level of energy and active at the site, even with the hot weather — it’s impressive,” Sarlo told NJOnlineGambling. “I think they’ve turned the corner, and I’m looking forward to the opening.”

Sabato, president of the Bergen County Building and Construction Trades Council, already is looking ahead to further development at the Meadowlands Sports Complex — which currently has the MetLife Stadium home of the “New York” Giants and Jets, the Meadowlands Racetrack, and, as Murphy noted, sports betting.

(Murphy made the first legal bet in New Jersey in June — laying an egg with a selection of first-round loser Germany to win the World Cup.)

Someone has Meadowlands casino fever

So with nearly all of the region’s politicians on hand as well as some businessmen, Sabato pitched the idea of a large convention center and a 1,000-room hotel — each of which, of course, would provide thousands of jobs for his workers for multiple years.

“And Governor,” Sabato said to Murphy with a pitch-perfect Jersey accent, “I’ll take a casino, too!”

That last one might have to wait a few years. A 2016 referendum on ending Atlantic City’s four-decade casino monopoly in the state was crushed by a multimillion-dollar negative ad campaign funded by New York state and Atlantic City casino interests.

But that doesn’t mean gambling won’t be used to market American Dream to well-heeled European and Asian tourists.

A whole lotta jobs

Tony Armlin, the lead executive for project developer Triple Five, recalled meeting with Sabato and other North Jersey labor business managers back in 2011 and being informed that 40 percent of their workers were either unemployed or underemployed.

Sabato gushed about Armlin like a best man giving a wedding toast — not surprising when you hear the numbers put forth by Armlin:

There are about 1,200 “hard hats” on the site as part of a 1,700-strong workforce that is, well, laboring to complete the project. When construction peaks near the end of 2018, Armlin said the latter figure will grow to 3,000.

While the first two developers spent $2 billion on the site from 2003-’09 before handing over the keys to project lenders, Armlin said the overall cost will be $5 billion. Current spending is $3 million per day, so $90 million per month.

Other big numbers: 23,000 jobs created upon opening, including 7,000 indirect jobs off-site. Annual worker compensation: $1.2 billion. Annual tax revenues: $148 million.

With 29.2 percent of work hours in July going to women and minority workers, Armlin said Triple Five — best known as the operator of the Mall of America in Minnesota — has exceeded its goals. But the effort to have 6.9 percent of jobs be performed by women has not quite yet been reached, Armlin conceded.

The finish line is in sight

Much of the project now looks from the outside like it is nearly done, but Armlin said the precise figure is “68 percent complete.”

The turning point after all these years came in mid-2017, when a bond sale of $1.1 billion triggered a $1.6 billion construction loan package. That is expected to be enough to finish American Dream, and those gutsy enough to buy in a year ago have reaped rewards.

The focus this fall is on enclosing the indoor water and amusement parks, then intensifying work on the entertainment and retail complex. Sabato said there remain 462 “fit outs” — mostly, that means creating designs for hundreds of stores that will be part of the lure for what Triple Five says will attract 35 to 40 million visitors per year.

In a state that loves to gamble, Triple Five is making the biggest bet of all.

What’s in American Dream Meadowlands

  • A 2.3-million-square-foot entertainment (55 percent) and retail (45 percent) center
  • A 639,000-square-foot indoor water park (themed by Dreamworks Animation) and amusement park (themed by Nickelodeon) complex, with two intertwined rollercoasters — one the world’s tallest and the other the world’s steepest
  • More than a dozen full-service restaurants and 100+ places to eat and drink, including a kosher food hall
  • An international tourism center
  • A 20,000-square -oot spa and wellness site
  • A performing arts center
  • Big Snow America, a 16-story, 18,000-square-foot indoor snow park and chalet
  • A 235-foot-in-diameter Observation Wheel (think London Eye)
  • SeaLife Aquarium
  • Legoland Discovery Center
  • An NHL-sized ice skating rink
  • A KidZania children’s role-playing center
  • A 12-screen movie complex with “CMX X4D,” said to feature “state-of-the-art surround sound, moving seats, and an environment with wind, rain, snow, fog, and scents all synchronized to the on-screen action.”

Did we mention that’s just “Phase One”?

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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