NEWARK-If you want to build a casino in Atlantic City going forward, you’d better have a check ready for $20 million, money that the state plans to spend to redevelop the state’s other ailing urban centers. Acting governor Donald DiFrancesco has just signed a bill expanding the scope of the original Casino Reinvestment Act to accomplish that.

As part of the original casino-enabling legislation, back in the 1970s, casino owners have been required to invest in non-casino redevelopment in Atlantic City, the only place where such gaming palaces can be built in the state. Critics have asserted that such investment, under the aegis of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, has been a mixed bag at best.

Casino owners will still have to invest in AC, but the state wants to spread the wealth, such as it is. Hence, CRDA’s Urban Revitalization Incentive Program, the bill the acting governor has just signed.

The way it works is that the state, through CRDA, will provide grants to casino licensees for development within a half-dozen entertainment-retail districts in AC. Qualified projects must have at least 150,000 sf of public space and include a mix of retail, entertainment, restaurants, casino/hotels and other public facilities.

In return, casino operators have to kick a minimum of $20 million into a fund for development of entertainment-retail projects or community housing in urban areas outside of AC. The money would be drawn from the casinos’ investment alternative tax obligations, and the term of the casinos’ CRDA obligations will be extended from 30 to 35 years. Of the money generated in those extra five years, 25% will go to AC, 25% to the rest of South Jersey and 50% to the Northern and Central parts of the state.

Symbolically, acting governor DiFrancesco signed the bill in front of the boarded-up Hahne’s department store in downtown Newark. The building is being redeveloped as loft apartments, ground floor retail and restaurants by the New Newark Foundation, funded in part by the Tropicana Casino’s $20 million contribution to statewide urban redevelopment.

“We need thriving centers of commerce and culture,” DiFrancesco said at the signing last Friday. “For New Jersey to reach its potential, Camden must succeed, New Brunswick must succeed, Trenton must succeed. And certainly, Newark must continue to succeed.

“More redevelopment will take place with this legislation,” he continued. “More economic activity will be generated, and the conditions will be even better for building an arena [in Newark] that will bring major-league excitement to this city.”

The legislation was sponsored by state senators Bill Gormley (R-Atlantic County) and Sharpe James (D-Essex and Union counties), who is also mayor of Newark; and assemblymen Francis Blee (R-Atlantic County) and Ken LeFevre (R-Atlantic County).

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