After months of little progress in clearing a complex web of legal restrictions around the former Showboat casino property in Atlantic City, Stockton University may have new hope in the form of legislation to be introduced by two state lawmakers.
State Sen. James Whelan and Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, Democrats who represent Atlantic County, announced Monday a bill that would remove land covenants from publicly owned property in the Atlantic City Tourism District. Their goal: Clear conflicting restrictions on the Showboat property, freeing Stockton to sell it.
"The imposition of deed restrictions is particularly offensive when applied to limit the use and nature of improvements upon public property located in the Tourism District," the proposed bill reads.
"This is especially so in the case of the former Showboat Hotel and Casino which was purchased by Stockton University for the purpose of expanding its campus to the Tourism District and now, because of deed restrictions, cannot do so and is having difficult selling the property."
The bill would have restrictions on property owned by public entities declared void and unenforceable. Whelan plans to introduce the bill Thursday to the State Government, Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Preservation Committee, which he chairs.
Whelan and Mazzeo said Monday that they had consulted with the Office of Legislative Services and other lawyers regarding lawmakers' ability to intervene.
"Stockton's a public institution," Whelan said, saying the Showboat site has been expensive to maintain while sitting in limbo. "So sometimes you just have to cut the Gordian knot."
Stockton has spent months trying to figure out what to do with the property, purchased from Caesars Entertainment in December for $18 million and now costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each month in maintenance, repair, and security costs.
A 1988 legal covenant involving Caesars says the property must be used as a casino and hotel; a deed restriction placed by Caesars when Stockton bought the property says the property can be used for anything but a casino.
"Very simply . . . this situation is so complex, with competing covenants," Whelan said.
The parent company of the Trump Taj Mahal casino next door to the Showboat site said it would enforce the 1988 restriction, forcing Stockton to give up its plans for turning the property into a residential campus for thousands of students.
Adding to the complications, Caesars had agreed to protect Stockton regarding the 1988 covenant, but has since declared bankruptcy.
The Showboat property's legal status "doesn't entice anybody to buy it when they're trying to sell it," Mazzeo said. "So this [bill] would nullify it, and allow Stockton to sell the property and hopefully go elsewhere, probably uptown, to have a footprint in Atlantic City."
Glenn Straub, the Florida developer who recently purchased the Revel casino, agreed to buy the Showboat property from Stockton, with a three-month escape clause so the university could try to solve the legal issues.
The sale was supposed to go through this month. The day before closing, Straub sued Stockton, saying the school had not done its part to resolve the legal status of the casino site.
Stockton's goal is still to sell the Showboat, even if the legislation removes the restrictions, said Harvey Kesselman, the university's acting president.
For one thing, Kesselman said Monday, he would not want to continue exposing Stockton to future litigation. He said he also believed he could sell the property based on expressed interest from potential buyers.
"What we're trying to do is get out from under the litigation," Kesselman said.
"At this time, we're definitely interested in selling the Showboat property" to Straub, he said. "That would be the most expeditious. Remember, the legislation's a long way off from being passed."
Even if Whelan introduces the bill this week, Mazzeo cannot do the same in the Assembly until it meets again, likely in the fall.
"The legislation being developed is going to be, I hope, a catalyst for some sort of action," said Kesselman, who said the clearest way forward is to sell the Showboat to Straub.
"It doesn't have to be resolved in the courts, it doesn't have to be resolved in legislation," he said. "I'm willing to sit down with any party to resolve this."