When the lights went out in some of Atlantic City’s casinos last year, and the big letters T, R, U, M, and P were dismantled and taken down along Pacific Avenue, those iconic, empty buildings began to look like tombstones along the boardwalk.
Four of the city’s 12 casinos closed in 2014—The Atlantic Club, Showboat, Trump Plaza, and Revel, its newest and most expensive and everyone, it seemed, had written eulogies as more and more casinos opened up in neighboring states.
“Detroit with a Boardwalk. Why Atlantic City is dying.”
“Too many casinos doom Atlantic City.”
“Poll: Can Atlantic City be saved?”
Those were just some of the headlines written about the city and the stories that followed read like an autopsy report with nearly 10,000 jobs lost in the Atlantic City region, bankruptcies, empty piers and court battles over the future of Revel.
“The stories about Atlantic City’s demise are greatly exaggerated. The patient hasn’t just died, it’s on life support,” says Harry Hurley, a longtime radio host in the area. “Atlantic City is much healthier than the headlines suggest.”
Some posed the questions no one seemed to think about decades ago when the Atlantic City’s gambling industry opened for business. What happens to us, if casinos open elsewhere, as close as Philadelphia?
“The monopoly on gaming has ended,” says Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian. “Each time you have a new casino, it hurts another casino. It kicks out the weakest. Unfortunately, the oldest happened to be in Atlantic City.”
Guardian, a Republican, was elected in 2013, defeating incumbent Lorenzo Langford. The casinos that were on the brink of closure were an immediate, eye-popping problem but Guardian says an equally difficult situation came from other properties filing tax appeals to have their assessments lowered.
“The casinos have won every appeal,” Guardian says, “and we can never talk about raising taxes again.”
There’s more bad news, or if you prefer to be optimistic, news that could go either way or somehow work out even better than anyone intended. The Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy but remains open, the Showboat could possibly become a campus for Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and Revel, which recived $260 million in tax incentives from the state, was purchased by Florida developer Glenn Straub.
Those three properties have been involved in protracted court hearings and Straub, who’s mentioned some wild ideas for turning Revel around, could fill up a few pages all on his own.
“We might open up this year. We might not,” Straub said of Revel in an interview with Bloomberg in May. “The machines are all there, and so are the surveillance cameras.”
The good news about the closures is that the surviving casinos, according to a recent New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement report, saw their gross operating profits rise by 26 percent in the first quarter of 2015. The casinos saw operating profits of $81.3 million, up from $64.5 million in the same period last year.
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The college campus proposition and the recent opening of a bait and tackle megastore in the heart of the city are intriguing twists on Atlantic City’s formula that many, including Mayor Guardian, believe are critical to the city’s future: non-gaming revenue.
Bringing non-gaming revenue, like the popular Tanger Outlets at the Walk, the Sheraton Convention Center hotel, and the Pier Shops at Caesar’s on the boardwalk, has long been a subject of debate in the city. There’s some who feel Atlantic City should always embrace the vices and remain a little seedy, harken back to the days of “Boardwalk Empire” and stay that way as Las Vegas, once its only competition, adds roller coasters and family shows.
“Las Vegas has gotten to the point where more than 60 percent of the revenue is nongaming. We’re lucky if we’re at 20 percent,” Hurley says.
Guardian, 62, said Atlantic City should have been courting non-gaming revenue long before the economic crisis and gaming competition began to take its toll.
“As a city, we’re going to transition. We’ve got to move away from just casinos,” he says. “Despite all the doom and gloom, we still had the same 25 million visitors we did the year before. They’re not coming just for gaming. I’m not selling out gaming, but we’ve got to adapt.”
The Bass Pro Shops opening in April with 85,000-square-feet of fishing, hunting and outdoor gear in the shadow of the casinos, and early numbers show it’s doing well. It’s the first store the popular brand has opened in New Jersey and Governor Chris Christie was there to cut the ribbon.
“We are looking forward to working with them and all of you to keep Atlantic City the great place it has always been,” Christie said on the store’s opening day.
Guardian calls Bass Pro Shops a “candy store for the outdoorsman.”
Casinos, Guardian noted, have also responded to “millennial” needs, offering more spas, restaurants, nightclubs and concert venues. The Borgata, arguably the most successful of Atlantic City’s casinos, recently opened an outdoor concert venue called “Festival Park” that will host acts including The Killers, Meghan Trainor and Counting Crows this summer.
The Tropicana has made major investments on its boardwalk frontage and Resorts added a Margaritaville venue, but the most interesting new twist on the boardwalk is the arrival of Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein, known in the City of Brotherly Love for creating the Piazza at Schmidt’s development in Northern Liberties.
Last year, Blatstein purchased the Pier Shops at Caesar’s, an enclosed mall that jutted out over the beach and Atlantic Ocean. The pier has been there long before any of the casinos, starting life as Capt. John Young’s Million Dollar Pier and in 2006, it was transformed into a high-end mall with retailers like Gucci and Tiffany and restaurants and night clubs on its top floor.
The nation’s economic crisis, coupled with casino expansion, left the mall mostly empty and tenants began to close up shop. It was once appraised at $200 million and Blatstein reportedly paid just $2.5 million for it.
In April, he unveiled his plan to redevelop the pier into a nightlife and music destination and rechristen it as “The Playground,” which tips a hat to an era when Atlantic City was known as America’s Playground. The 500,000-square-foot Playground is supposed to be finished by the end of the year, and will include three levels of entertainment including 14 live-music venues, a bowling alley, and a sports bar that could possibly be the biggest in the country.
Blatstein said that he has no doubts about the success of the project, that it’s nowhere near the “gamble” some of his other successful projects were in Philadelphia.
“Atlantic City is a great city that’s fallen on some hard times,” he says. “This project is going to change the game there.”
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One man who has seen many of the ups and downs play out in Atlantic City is Frank Becktel, owner and driver of one of Atlantic City’s unique “Jitney” buses. Becktel said the opening of the Borgata in 2003 was the peak of Atlantic City’s popularity.
“There were just throngs of people all over the streets. There’s been a steady change as Atlantic city changed,” he says.
Becktel says the city has also weathered some other, more unusual, headlines that had nothing to do with casinos. Some included tourists who were murdered in the middle of town but the bulk came during and after Superstorm Sandy battered the Jersey coast in October of 2012.
Atlantic City was flooded for sure but was spared the worst compared to coastal resorts further north like Brigantine, Mantoloking and Seaside Heights. There were reports, however, that Atlantic City’s boardwalk was “destroyed” by the storm and they proved persistent, despite the facts.
“When the storm hit, we had to fight the narrative that AC got wiped off the map, that the boardwalk disappeared,” says Bechtel. “We had to fight that for 18 months. Then the casinos were going bankrupt and closing and we had to fight that narrative too.”
Bechtel says he has faith in Guardian and Atlantic City and he beckoned more investors like Blatstein and Bass Pro Shops to take a look.
“Right now, there’s an opportunity to come here. We’ll take any investment. We really do have to reinvent ourselves,” he says. “I see nothing but upside.”
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Other business owners, like John Exadaktilos, says the Atlantic City is the “best roller coaster ride known to man” and it needs to get its groove back. The proliferation of casinos in Pennsylvania, including the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia and Harrah’s in Chester, should not be competition for Atlantic City, which he feels is a bona-fide destination worthy of a whole weekend.
“Our only competitor should be Vegas, not other casinos,” Exadaktilos says.
Exadaktilos owns the eclectic Ducktown Tavern on Atlantic Avenue, a neighborhood bar that draws in plenty of police officers, firefighters and casino employees. Exadaktilos and his family renovated and opened the former dive bar in 2005. Like most other bars in Atlantic City, the Ducktown has the option to stay open 24 hours.
Exadaktilos says he’s seen some increased business from the opening of the nearby Bass Pro Shops but he said it’s mostly locals that keep him going. Atlantic City, after all, is still a city of approximately 39,000 people.
“Tourism is always a bonus for the smaller businesses,” he says. “Our success, though, is mostly based on our locals.”
It’s important to remember the diversity of offerings in the city, Exadaktilos says, and just how different Atlantic City can be for each and every tourist.
The bulk of the comedy shows, nightlife, restaurants and concerts are held in the casinos, with Borgata holding a firm grasp on live entertainment now that Revel has closed and The House of Blues closed with the Showboat.
Still, Atlantic City’s “Boardwalk Hall” is one of the more majestic venues on the East Coast for concerts and other events, like championship boxing. Longtime Atlantic City aficionados will tell you there’s often no bigger buzz in the city than there is on fight night. Boardwalk Hall is home to the fabled Miss America pageant and is also hosting The Eagles, Madonna and various sporting events this year.
Boardwalk Hall also has a unique place in Atlantic City’s history as a resort town because it hosted the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Securing the convention is a win for any city and though Atlantic City’s popularity had been waning as other shore communities began to prosper after World War II, the world’s media would be in town for this first time in years.
Reporters found the city was rundown, the hotels old and hot, and they wrote about it, a precursor for the bad headlines that would plague the city a half-century later. Hurley says it crushed the city until casinos were finally legalized and Resorts opened in 1978.
“The convention was chronicled as a moment of truth, a watershed event,” Hurley says. “Atlantic City had a big problem, though. They put the media in the worst rooms and they made them pay for it.”
One of the bigger positives in the city, Hurley noted, is an effort to increase the convention business. The city scored a huge victory, Hurley says, by securing the influential Meeting Professionals International conference in 2016, which will bring about bout 2,000 meeting planners to the city in a new waterfront conference center at Harrah’s.
“They are setting records right now in terms of the number of conventions,” Hurley says.
Though the headlines about destroyed boardwalks were flat-out wrong, no one can deny the news that Atlantic City is weathering a storm that should have been forecasted way back in 1978 when the ribbon was cut at that first casino.
Guardian knows it and just about everyone else knows it, but he says there’s still a magic in the salty air there, a vibe you can’t find at a single, standalone casino in the middle of nowhere. Atlantic City has room to grow too. The former Bader Field airport and its 142 acres, once considered one of the most valuable properties on the East Coast, remains empty.
Atlantic City can keep on reinventing itself and growing as long as city leaders and business owners look ahead and prepare for all the future may bring, both good and bad. Right now, Guardian says he sees good things on the horizon, even if a few casinos are dark.
“We’re still a great getaway,” Guardian says. ‘Take a good look at what’s going on. On any given weekend you could have a comic book convention, Lady Gaga or Madonna on stage, five night clubs open until five in the morning, boxing, 150 restaurants, and we’ve also got that beautiful boardwalk and free, clean beaches.”