Atlantic City’s Last, Last, Last, Last, Last, Last, Last Chance

by pkerkstra on August 8, 2011

I  hadn’t spent much time at all in Atlantic City until very recently, when Philadelphia magazine sent me there to figure out how/if the city can survive as gambling revenue collapses. While there, I witnessed the aftermath of a shooting, saw a bag lady urinating beneath a hotel balcony and tiptoed around some hard-luck dudes a couple of cops had pinned to the sidewalk.

Also: I loved the place, and hope to go back soon. Yeah. Strange. I try to explain it better in the story. Here’s an excerpt:

LONG BEFORE THIS TRIP, and without ever really thinking all that hard about it, I had somehow decided that Atlantic City just wasn’t the place for me. I enjoy gambling only when I win, so I couldn’t see too much reason to go. That ambivalent take was all wrong. As I soon figured out, Atlantic City is packed with good reasons both to stay the weekend and to stay the hell away altogether.

A few years ago, Atlantic City would have been more or less indifferent to a non-gaming- tourist like myself. Not anymore. Gaming- revenue, the city’s lifeblood, has been in free fall three years running. Casinos with famous names—Resorts and the Trump Marina—have been sold off for less than some Shore vacation homes. The Hilton-, the spot where Frank Sinatra used to perform, stopped paying its mortgage in 2009.

Citywide, casino profits plummeted nearly 61 percent between 2006 and 2010. Adjusted for inflation, those profits are now at their lowest level since the early ’80s. Not even the mighty Borgata is immune: Last month, for a fifth straight quarter, it reported falling revenue compared to the same period one year earlier. Gaming executives say Atlantic City is now getting by on about $2 billion less in annual gaming revenue than it was in 2006.

To prevent gaming’s collapse from taking the whole town with it, Atlantic City is banking on a pair of big changes: a state takeover of half the city, and a fundamental market readjustment on the part of the casinos, which now recognize that their gambling-dominated models won’t work in a world where there are craps tables in Chester and baccarat in Bensalem. Revel, the striking new resort on the north end of the Boardwalk, slated to open next May, most completely represents the new thinking: gaming as just a piece of a total resort experience, one that actually embraces Atlantic City’s greatest assets—the Boardwalk, the ocean and the wide beach. The new state “tourism district” may be just as important. It exists primarily to eliminate, or at least better hide, Atlantic City’s enduring seediness, which Governor Chris Christie is convinced is the real reason for the city’s problems.

If these changes work, Atlantic City might finally become what its boosters have always billed it as: a playground for the masses-, equally enticing for families, bachelorette parties, and sophisticated couples on a weekend escape. If they don’t, well, the doomsday scenario is easy to imagine. Casinos begin to abandon Absecon Island. Unemployment rises, crime spikes, and the city becomes Camden on the ocean, with a Boardwalk instead of an aquarium. The great irony, of course, is that gambling was billed as the only alternative to just such a fate when it was legalized back in 1976.

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