“The one constant through all the years, in North Jersey, has been Meadowlands Xanadu/American Dream Meadowlands. Construction has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. Opening dates have been erased like a blackboard, revised, and erased again. But the entertainment and retail project has marked the time.
“This project, this dream: it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again. Oh, people will come. People will most definitely come.”
With apologies to the iconic James Earl Jones speech in “Field of Dreams,” for similarly named American Dream operator Triple Five the real answer is, if only it were that simple.
The star-crossed project — now past its 17th birthday since the state approved the original Xanadu — has had to postpone its opening date for the main phase of its offerings from March 19 until … who knows?
Today was to be the day that the $30 million Sea Life Aquarium was to launch at its rightful place inside the 3-million-square-foot indoor facility alongside the amusement park — which opened in October with the skating rink — as well as the snow park (which opened in December) and the water park and 1 million square feet of retail (which of course did not open).
Those delays have impacted thousands of mostly part-time, would-be employees who now must wait it out and pray that the project — built by the owners of Mall of America in Minnesota and the even larger West Edmonton Mall in western Canada — survives the economic turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Project executive Paul Ghermezian appeared on the CNBC business channel recently to talk about plans to reinvent the entertainment/retail balance in light of retail’s especially shaky future.)
First comes the Dream, then the Meadowlands casino talk
The delay also has left discussions about the next big potential step at the fabled Meadowlands Sports Complex — a casino and perhaps a convention center — backed up even well beyond a possible resurrection of, literally, the American Dream.
Such a casino, in theory, could open its doors in a few years as boldly onto a national stage as the Meadowlands Racetrack — still in some respects the crown jewel of harness racing in the U.S., if not globally — did in 1976.
But Meadowlands Chamber President Jim Kirkos told NJ Online Gambling just days before the COVID-19 shutdown of most businesses statewide — including American Dream itself on March 16 — that lobbying in earnest for a casino on the 750-acre grounds would have to wait, realistically, until after American Dream had fully opened.
The concept peaked in the past decade when a statewide referendum appeared on the November 2016 ballot asking voters if they would endorse having two casinos in the northern part of the state.
The lack of specificity about where the casinos would be located — in spite of extensive discussions about having one at the Meadowlands and the other near Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City — didn’t help. There also was no tax rate specified, making it unclear to potential rivals if the structure would be appealing to them.
Most damaging of all was a $10 million marketing campaign against the ballot question called “Trenton’s Bad Bet,” funded in large part by the Yonkers Raceway and Aqueduct Raceway racinos in New York as well as Resorts Atlantic City casino.
The campaign, which exploited bipartisan dissatisfaction across the state with Assembly and state Senate lawmakers, contributed to a lopsided defeat for the proposal and left backers licking their wounds for a few years.
“It’s very interesting,” Kirkos said. “We’ve been able to keep the talk about a casino going [since the referendum], and how the sports complex could have a greater vision. Adding more components is [was] starting to make sense to people.”
The potential opening, Kirkos had said, perhaps would convince those in power that finally there was a “more there there, that it’s the real deal. And now what else can we do?”
No ‘time for traffic problems’ in East Rutherford?
Ron Simoncini, a public relations specialist for the Meadowlands Chamber, had anticipated the March phase opening of American Dream would provide few additional traffic issues in the region, similar to the opening of the indoor amusement park in October and the launch of the indoor snow park in December.
“People will continue to see that with the roadwork infrastructure in the area, the absorption rate of new traffic will still be tremendous — absorbed like rain drops in the desert,” said Simoncini, whose grade on his early March prediction is now on hold indefinitely.
At that point, critics — who have been predicting “gridlock” at the site since before the original concept of Meadowlands Xanadu was first approved by state officials in February 2003 — could be mollified enough by the lack of traffic nightmares to consider whether a casino like American Dream could also work with a flow of visitors arriving at all hours of the day.
Kirkos also still sees a convention center as part of the Sports Complex mix. And after talking to countless interested parties in the region, he pivoted on his approach.
“In our earlier discussions, we felt like the casino was going to get us the convention center along with it,” Kirkos said last month. “Now we realize that it’s the other way around — the convention center gets us the casino. We want to add something that drives visitation to the complex, and when we have all these groups for conventions, we want to give them even more to do.
“Having the entertainment provided by having a casino would be a really important element,” he added. “And American Dream can be to the Meadowlands what Disney is to Orlando.”
Cuomo not competing with New Jersey
New Jersey supporters of adding a casino in the Meadowlands have benefited from New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reluctance to expand gambling in his state.
New Jersey in 2019 collected an estimated $6.3 million in direct taxes from New Yorkers who crossed the border to make legal wagers on sporting events rather than head to Resorts World Catskills casino or casinos even further to the north. Cuomo has referred to any lost sports betting revenue as the equivalent of just “a rounding error” in his state’s large budget.
Cuomo also has been cool to the pitches of some state lawmakers who would like to see Aqueduct and Yonkers racetracks add sports betting to their large, adjacent slot machine parlors once a New York City region moratorium on such licenses ends in 2023. Yonkers, being just a few miles north of the George Washington Bridge, could expect to poach revenues from North Jerseyans should a casino in the region not come to fruition.
Without the pandemic, Kirkos and Simoncini and their allies might have soon been in a position to revive the drive for a Meadowlands casino — and to claim far more tax revenue from New Yorkers than the modest sports betting tax windfall.
Now those plans, like almost everything else in the world these days, must get in line behind both the end of the pandemic and the beginning of a new era at American Dream.