Seven months after bailing on Atlantic City, the casino-entertainment company Hard Rock International announced Wednesday it is investing in the Meadowlands Racetrack with an eye toward potentially expanding the region's gambling offerings.
The announcement comes seven months after Hard Rock scrapped a plan for an Atlantic City casino. It also comes with the state of gambling in New Jersey in flux, with online betting on the way and the state fighting in court to start offering sports betting.
It signals Hard Rock's belief that gambling's future in New Jersey is in population-rich North Jersey and not Atlantic City, where the casino industry is in its seventh year of decline and the clock is ticking on its turnaround efforts, which could determine whether casino gambling is expanded to places like the Meadowlands.
Hard Rock, an Orlando, Fla.-based company owned by the Seminole Indians, said it had agreed to make an equity investment in New Meadowlands Racetrack LLC, which it said "extends to any projected future developments at the racetrack."
The amount of the investment was not disclosed.
"Our company welcomes this opportunity and looks forward to leveraging our brand to potentially expand the region's gaming offerings and sports betting through this alliance," Jim Allen, Hard Rock's chairman, said in a statement.
Hard Rock is developing a gambling and entertainment complex at a racetrack in Northfield, Ohio.
Allen held out the possibility that an investment could be made one day in Atlantic City as well.
He said "we also believe this investment would sit comfortably alongside potential projects in the future, such as Atlantic City, in the event we establish a viable long-term entry plan for the market."
Meadowlands Racetrack chairman Jeff Gural called Hard Rock "a perfect partner."
"We are certain the company, through its history, experience and expertise in gaming, hotels, restaurants, live events, entertainment and retail offerings, will bring added synergies and innovation to New Meadowlands Racetrack," he said in a joint statement.
The development comes as the face of legalized gambling is rapidly changing in New Jersey.
This year, the state became the third in the nation to legalize Internet gambling and hopes to start taking online bets by the end of the year. It is also battling the NCAA and the four major professional sports leagues to overturn a federal ban on sports betting in all but four states, and recently approved fantasy sports betting contests.
New Jersey horse tracks have long clamored to be able to offer slot machines and casino games like tracks in other states do.
But Gov. Chris Christie gave Atlantic City five years to turn itself around before he'd consider moving to expand gambling to other areas of the state — a move that would require a constitutional amendment. Two-and-a-half years are left on that deadline.
"I'm not ready to give up yet," Christie said in February.