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Christie team makes a play for top sports attractions

Insiders: High-profile events help spur economic development

Over the past two years, New Jersey has developed a deep lineup of major sports events: NCAA Tournament basketball, the Ironman Triathlon, the Special Olympics, Formula One racing and, most visible of all, the 2014 Super Bowl.

Over the past two years, New Jersey has developed a deep lineup of major sports events: NCAA Tournament basketball, the Ironman Triathlon, the Special Olympics, Formula One racing and, most visible of all, the 2014 Super Bowl.

For Gov. Chris Christie‘s administration, attracting top-flight sports events has become a pillar in its economic development emphasis, though Jon F. Hanson, the Hampshire Cos. founder who heads Christie’s sports and entertainment committee, said it’s a strategy the state has pursued for decades.

“Think about the Super Bowl,” Hanson said, adding that the event will provide a stream of hotel, restaurant and car rental customers the region would otherwise lack. “The more events that you have, there is a positive economic benefit to the state of New Jersey.”

Super Bowl organizers have said the event will bring more than $550 million in economic development to the region, an estimated based on the effect of previous games.

Hanson said the game should attract at least the same number of out-of-area visitors as Super Bowls in other cities, since the NFL controls ticket sales. That creates a larger audience for amenities like the former Xanadu megamall, which Edmonton-based Triple Five is rebranding and redeveloping.

“The American Dream — which we believe will be a destination point — it will not just be for local people,” Hanson said. The retail and entertainment complex is slated to open in 2013.

Administration officials and sports supporters say making New Jersey a sports destination will yield benefits through short-term investment and long-term image improvement.

Wayne Hasenbalg, Christie’s deputy chief of staff for policy and planning and the governor’s point man for sports events, said the administration is asking: “What things can we bring into New Jersey from which the state can derive economic growth and job creation? This is one prong. We’re trying to get the most we can in New Jersey, as far as economic growth and job creation,” he said.

While Hanson said sports isn’t a new focus for the state, Christie’s efforts have been stronger than other recent governors, according to Carl J. Goldberg, a partner at Roseland Property Co. and a former chairman of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority, where he reported to four different governors.

“No one I have ever interfaced with has worked harder or been more effective at making New Jersey become a destination for multiple high-tier international sports events,” Goldberg said. “His administration has uniquely recognized both the direct and tangential positive economic impacts for New Jersey.”

The administration has assembled task forces to smooth the way for each event, with officials from each state department overseeing areas affected by the events, Hasenbalg said.

“We thought it was important to centralize a central point of contact in the governor’s office,” coordinating the work of cabinet officers and building personal relationships with event CEOs, he said.

Grace Hanlon, state director of travel and tourism, said coordination efforts already have paid off, as seen in the NCAA Tournament at Newark’s Prudential Center.

“We had great feedback that we were wonderful hosts,” Hanlon said, adding that she is preparing to repeat the performance for the other events. “When you invite these wonderful events in the state, you have to go above and beyond. The governor’s office really backed me up to make sure it worked as a tourism experience. They get it.”

The events’ economic development potential has drawn some skepticism, though. Michael L. Lahr, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s Urban Policy Research Center who has studied the economic effect of sports events, said New Jersey’s benefit from an event like the Super Bowl is limited compared with cities in other regions of the country. That’s because many spectators from the Northeastern states will be coming to the game for only a short visit, rather than the extended hotel stays required in cities that are further from population centers.

But state officials are quick to note New Jersey is not making direct investments in the events, unlike other destination cities. While no public money is being spent on Formula One, for instance, Austin, Texas, is spending $25 million to attract a race.

Hasenbalg said attracting the events is part of Christie’s broader effort to market the state around the country, which has been received warmly by businesses.

“They are extraordinarily supportive and happy when we announce these kinds of events,” Hasenbalg said. “It is of enormous value, and it does help in efforts to attract businesses to New Jersey.”

While the governor’s office declined to name any other events they are attempting to woo, business officials have said the NHL’s all-star game is a potential target.

Jeff Vanderbeek, chairman and managing partner of the New Jersey Devils, said he is a big supporter of the administration’s focus on creating its own sports identity.

“I think it’s very important for this state to carve its own identity and for this state to be seen as major league,” Vanderbeek said.

He sees a positive effect for the team from the Super Bowl and other events.

“Anything that provides more of a reason for people to come to this state to view sporting events is going to help the Devils,” he said. “It’s the only pro team that’s willing to put New Jersey on its chest, on its jersey.”

And the Devils, he said, are aiming to make their own contribution to Christie’s efforts to attract major sports events: “We’re going to help him by bringing the Stanley Cup finals here, too.”

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