By Liana Grey
Newmark Knight Frank chairman Jeff Gural is set to take the reins of the troubled Meadowlands Racetrack in northern New Jersey with a plan to put it back on track to profitability.
“Basically I have an agreement with the governor to lease the racetrack,” said Gural, who called up Governor Chris Christie’s office last year and was given several months to draft a redevelopment proposal. If the deal fell through, the state of New Jersey planned to shut down the 35-year-old facility.
As recommended by Jon Hanson, the state’s horse racing and casino advisor, Gural will likely pay a monthly rent of $1 for the next five years. After that, he and the governor’s office will settle on a rate that is fair to tax payers.
Though horse racing generates a good deal of money for New Jersey, Governor Christie has said he will not subsidize the track. “It’s a fair request to see if we can stand on our own two feet,” Gural told the Meadowlands Racetrack television crew.
With its one-mile dirt track, restaurants, and proximity to other Meadowlands attractions, including the Izod Center, Jets and Giants stadium, and the recently built Xanadu Mall, the track has all the ingredients for a revival, but could use a modern makeover.
“I plan to build a new grandstand,” Gural said. “The goal will be to have it up by July 1 of next year.” The new structure will be smaller and more compact than the current one, mimicking the grandstands at Gural’s two successful harness tracks, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs, in upstate New York.
With the fate of the Meadowlands Racetrack still uncertain, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which manages the Meadowlands Sports Complex, may hand out pink slips to employees in 60 days, according a news report in the local Bergen Record.
The Big M, which opened in 1976 to a crowd of over 40,000 spectators, has been losing money since the closing of off-track betting parlors in New York, and faces competition from the Yonkers Raceway, a Westchester County facility that offers slot machines in addition to harness races.
Under Gural’s lease agreement, he would get first dibs on a series of OTB facilities already planned for northern New Jersey, including a facility in Bayonne which is shovel ready.
“That would probably be the first location we would do,” said Gural of the Bayonne site, although he noted that his focus would be on building a less elaborate facility than current plans show. “If we are going to spend money on a new Meadowlands, we want to make sure people are going there.”
Though the Meadowlands Regional Chamber, a business service organization, released a proposal earlier this month for a resort casino at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, Gural also doesn’t think slot machines will come to northern New Jersey anytime soon. “The governor’s focus is on Atlantic City,” he said.
It was a love of horse racing rather than the prospect of quickly cashing in that attracted Gural to the Meadowlands course. “I have a lot invested in harness racing,” said the veteran real estate investor, who owns several horse breeding farms in upstate New York in addition to his racetracks,
He said he plans to form partnerships with the and Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association of New Jersey and with private investors to revitalize the Meadowlands track. “I’m just the cook stirring the pot,” he said in a television interview.
As Gural finalizes his renovation plans, the development group Triple Five is preparing to announce a new vision for the Xanadu Mall, a 4.5 million s/f shopping center adjacent to the racetrack. “We hope Xanadu gets up and running,” Gural said. “It’ll bring people in.”
While the prospect of pink slips is likely as Gural attempts to downsize the hulking operation, it is likley that the track will remain at least partially open to allow the Hambletonian and Oaks races to take place in August as well as ”several other stakes races.”
Gural said he would set up talks with the unions. “The Meadowlands has to operate at a profit. I’m hopeful that the unions understand that there is option A, to come up with a plan to make it self sustaining, or option B, to close it down.