By Jay Cook |
OCEANPORT – As hundreds of New Jerseyans placed their first legal sports bets at Monmouth Park Racetrack’s new state-of-the-art sports book Thursday, Sabino Portella was preparing for the lunch crowd by spreading tomato sauce on fresh pizza dough.
Day laborers and some race track aficionados trickled into his pizzeria, Enzo’s Pizza & Subs, across the street from Monmouth Park. Portella, the establishment’s owner, is ready for the crowds of visitors he hopes sports betting will bring to Oceanport.
“We’re thrilled by it,” said Portella, also a Oceanport homeowner. “It’s going to bring more traffic to the area. It’s going to be booming for the town.”
Oceanport was on the national stage last week when Gov. Phil Murphy made the first two legal sports bets in New Jersey history at 10:30 a.m. June 14. About a half hour later, sports bettors took to the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa to place the first bets in Atlantic City.
Advocates for the new industry are wagering on sports betting to boom. Early estimates from Murphy’s office suggest this first year could generate $13 million in state tax revenue.
But while the state patiently waits for those tax revenues to trickle in, what impact does a new, regulated sports betting industry have on Oceanport, a small borough of 5,800 residents surrounded by Route 36 and the Shrewsbury River?
Language in the bill Murphy signed June 11 lays groundwork for towns like Oceanport to tap into sports wagering revenues. All wagering sums realized by a horse racing permit holder, like Monmouth Park, are subject to a 1.25 percent tax. The towns are paid a 0.75 percent cut and the counties can access the remaining 0.50 percent.
The money, though, has to be set aside for economic development, according to the bill. Governing bodies will also need to submit an application to the state Division of Local Government Services to see those funds.
As to how or when the borough would see that money is still up in the air though, Oceanport Borough Council President Joe Irace said.
That process “will involve some additional paperwork. We will try and get clarification as to what and how,” said Irace. “We will also be working closely with our Monmouth County legislators Declan O’Scanlon, Vin Gopal and Serena DiMaso, who have always been helpful, to assure Oceanport taxpayers are protected.”
Although the borough may be in “uncharted territory,” Oceanport Mayor Jay Coffey said he looks at that situation with a “glass half full.”
“This breathes life back into the track,” said Coffey. “It doesn’t help racing, necessarily, but it’s another revenue source for the racetrack facility and for Oceanport.”
Sports betting also means Monmouth Park, which is Oceanport’s largest taxpayer and employer, is set to thrive after weathering a rocky decade. In recent years, the race track has had to shorten its racing season, decrease the number of racing days and cut purses to winning horses.
Oceanport officials have said Monmouth Park accounts for nearly 20 percent of the borough’s tax base. According to county tax records, the 136-acre main racetrack property was assessed at $72.2 million in 2018 and paid $1.15 million in taxes this year. The 38-acre parking lot across the street, also part of Monmouth Park, paid $154,656 in taxes this year at an assessed $9 million.
While the state revenue estimates are modest, it’s unclear what Monmouth Park would bring in. But Dennis Drazin, chairman and CEO of Darby Development, operators of Monmouth Park, believes New Jersey’s “mature” sports betting market could handle $10 billion, with Monmouth Park accountable for $1 billion of that.
“We’ve tried to be conservative in our estimates. It can be bigger than what I’m talking about,” said Drazin. “But for now we’re confident in our numbers and, if not, even part of that number represents survival for Monmouth Park. Every bit helps.”
In the meantime, the Oceanport establishment is looking at a more immediate economic driver – getting Justify, the Triple Crown-winning racehorse, to race at the park. Drazin said Justify is the racetrack’s “next game plan.”
Monmouth Park officials have been in contact with Justify’s stable, said Bill Knauf, Monmouth Park’s vice president of business operations. It would be the second Triple Crown winner at Monmouth Park in four years; American Pharaoh raced to a win in Oceanport in 2015.
County officials in 2015 estimated the economic impact from American Pharaoh was larger than the $40 million generate by the 2007 Breeder’s Cup.
Tie that in with a new sports betting industry and Oceanport becomes a true destination, said Coffey. That might be a “double-edged sword,” he added, but it’s all beneficial in the end.
“Some people get used to the fact that this is a bucolic, Mayberry-like community, and it’s going to bring traffic and people,” he said. “But it also means that the town is alive and the business opportunity is here. You can’t survive without commerce.”
This article first appeared in the June 21 – 28, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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